BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Iraq's new Health Ministry chief quit Tuesday after complaints that he was too close to Saddam Hussein's Baath party, and an influential Shiite cleric fresh from Iranian exile abandoned calls for an Islamic system, saying democracy is the best path.
The United States accepted Dr. Ali Shenan al-Janabi's resignation after he refused to condemn the Baath party, the Health Ministry announced. He had been on the job for 10 days.
The appointment of al-Janabi, an optometrist who was the ministry's No. 3 man under Saddam, had sparked protests by hundreds of doctors and pharmacists angry over his alleged ties to the former regime.
Opposition parties have complained that too many Saddam loyalists are being appointed to positions in the temporary U.S.-led administration.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, a longtime opposition group, said anyone in the Baath party's three top levels should be banned from the new government.
"There is no possibility of a future democratic Iraq … if the Baath party is not completely defeated and eradicated," Entifadh Qanbar said.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the war's commander, declared the Baath party dissolved on Sunday. But thousands of civil servants were affiliated with the party, and U.S. officials say any new government cannot avoid including people with Baath links.
At a health forum last week, al-Janabi said party membership was a condition for employment under Saddam. He said he was only a low-ranking party member.
Stephen Browning, senior adviser to the Health Ministry from the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, said al-Janabi was not associated with criminal activities, human rights abuses or weapons of mass destruction.
"Dr. Ali is a respected physician, and I appreciate his contributions to the Coalition Provisional Authority," said Browning, who requested the resignation nonetheless. It was unclear in what way al-Janabi had refused to condemn the Baath party.
In the predominantly Shiite city of Najaf, a senior Muslim cleric backtracked on earlier appeals for the establishment of a "modern Islamic regime" in Iraq, calling instead for a democratic government.
"Neither an Islamic government nor a secular administration will work in Iraq, but a democratic state that respects Islam as the religion of a majority of the population," Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim said at a news conference.
"Iraq needs a civil society and a popularly elected government that represents all ethnic, racial and religious groups."
His comments, which contrasted with other statements he made in recent days, could be aimed at assuaging American fears of an Iranian-style clerical regime in Iraq.
Al-Hakim's return Saturday after 23 years in exile is expected to reinforce Shiite demands for an important role in the future government after years of repression by Saddam's minority Sunni-dominated government.
Al-Hakim has repeatedly rejected religious extremism, even as he denounced the idea of any foreign-installed government in Iraq.
On Tuesday, he also promised a more prominent role for women, whom he said had an "essential role to play in elections and reconstruction of the country."
Iraq's new American administrator spent his first full day in Iraq facing mounting frustration over accusations that the United States isn't doing enough to impose order, provide jobs and restore water and electricity.
L. Paul Bremer, new boss of the current U.S. administrator, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, canceled his first scheduled public appearance Tuesday.
Many Iraqis hope Bremer will do more — and do it faster.
"I hope that Mr. Bremer will handle the situation in a good fashion," said Qanbar, whose London-based exile group is close to the American government. "Things have been very slow … Things have not gone the way we wished."
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