Up to 30,000 top members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party will be banned from any future Iraqi government, a senior US official said Friday as part of a sweeping decree aimed at putting "a stake in the heart" of the long-entrenched organization.
The US military announced Friday the arrest of Adilabdillah Mahdi al-Duri al-Tikriti, an upper-level Baath Party official who was also No. 52 on the US "blacklist" of regime figures.
Al-Duri was the Baath regional command chairman for a district near Tikrit and was apprehended in the village of ad-Dawr on Thursday. Tikrit is Saddam's hometown and a hotbed of Baath Party supporters.
The order banning the Baathists will not be easy to carry out. The talent pool of the Iraqi civil service is brimming with bureaucrats whose livelihoods depended on Baath Party affiliation.
In the Shiite holy city of Karbala, volunteers excavated a mass grave and collected the remains of 45 bodies. Residents suspect as many as 5,000 sets of remains are buried in the area, though they offered no immediate proof. The mass grave is the third uncovered in Iraq this week.
"The blood of innocent people won't go away. Criminals should stand trial," chanted some of the 1,000 people gathered at the mass grave site in Karbala. "Death to the Baath Party members."
US civilian administrator Paul Bremer released the decree Friday barring Baathists from the party's top four echelons from any public position -- whether in universities, hospitals or minor government posts.
An even stricter vetting process will be used in appointing officials to Iraqi ministries dealing with security, such as the defense and interior ministries. In addition, all members of a future Iraqi government will be required to renounce Baathism, said an official from the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
"The Baath Party in Iraq is finished," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity at a background briefing inside the marble confines of Saddam's Republican Palace. "We mean to be sure that by this process, we will put a stake in its heart."
The reconstruction team's purging efforts will target 15,000 to 30,000 party members, the official said.
As many as 1.5 million of Iraq's 24 million people belonged to the party under Saddam. But only about 25,000 to 50,000 were full-fledged members -- the elite targeted by US officials.
Many of the upper-level figures in Saddam's regime -- the most-wanted, including the Iraqi leader himself -- are already being pursued, depicted on a deck of cards designed to familiarize US forces with their faces.
The official said Americans would comb through the deposed regime's records, interview co-workers and seek testimony to make sure the government is free of the party's influence.
The pervasive public signs and displays of Saddam's face have also been banned, the official said, speaking under a roof topped by four 6m-tall statues of Saddam's head.
The order does not specifically ban gatherings of former Baathists.
The Baath Party was founded in neighboring Syria in 1943 and spread across the Arab world, promoting Arab unity with a repressive, Soviet-style party structure.
Iraq's Baath Party, dominated by Sunni Muslims in a country that has a Shiite majority, took power briefly in the early 1960s, then ruled Iraq continuously from 1968 until last month -- most of that time under Saddam. Neighboring Syria is ruled by a Baath faction headed by President Bashar Assad.