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Iraqi parliament OKs benchmark

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi parliament passed a bill yesterday to allow some former officials from Saddam Hussein's party to apply for government positions, in the first of the so-called political benchmark measures to pass after months of U.S. pressure for progress.

The measure, which is expected to be approved to become law by the presidential council, was described by its backers as opening the door for the reinstatement of thousands of low-level Baath Party members barred from office after the U.S. invasion in 2003. The Bush administration had urged the Iraqi government to pass such a measure to help mend the deep rifts between Sunni Arabs who used to control the government under Saddam Hussein and the Shiites who now dominate politics here.

It was unclear yesterday how far the legislation would go toward soothing Sunni Arabs. Many Sunni Arabs have strongly denounced the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for shutting them out. In the hours after the vote, serious disagreements emerged about how much the law would do, and some political leaders said it would actually force many former Baathists out of current government jobs and into retirement.

President Bush, traveling in Kuwait and Bahrain yesterday, praised the vote, calling it "an important step toward reconciliation." And he said that to consolidate progress in the country in the past year, he was prepared to slow or even halt further U.S. troop reductions in Iraq beyond those planned through the summer.

"We cannot take the achievements of 2007 for granted," he said.

A senior official from the largest Sunni Arab bloc in Parliament, Tawafiq, said many lawmakers from the bloc supported the measure. But just over half of the 275 members of parliament were present to vote. And Mohammed al-Diani, a member of the hard-line Sunni National Dialogue Council, said the measure would still restrict "many scientists, professors, doctors, engineers and other competent men."

Some Shiite officials praised the legislation because they said strong curbs on former Baathists would remain in place. "They will not be allowed to get important posts or take part in the political process," said Bahaa al-Araji, a leader of the bloc of Shiite lawmakers loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, describing the more senior former party members.

One Shiite politician, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, said the new law could forcibly retire up to 27,000 former Baathists, who would receive pensions. Yet Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish lawmaker, said that under the new law only 3,500 former Baath Party members would be prevented from serving in the government, allowing more than 30,000 to hold government jobs.

"The law allows a lot of them to come back to their jobs, but those who were responsible in the old regime, the highest-ranking ones, they will be locked out," he said. Others who would be barred from government jobs and not receive pensions would include former members of the Fedayeen paramilitary force and those found by a new de-Baathification committee to have committed serious crimes against the Iraqi people.

Othman said the law would abolish the old de-Baathification committee, created by the Iraqi Governing Council before the nation had established a parliament. Under the new law, Othman said, Baathists would be vetted by a different committee created by appointees selected by parliament. Unlike the old committee, the new committee's decisions will be subject to appeal by the Iraqi Ministry of Justice.

Hours before the vote, after meeting in Kuwait with Bush and Gen. David H. Petraeus, Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said there were increasing signs of political reconciliation.

"Reconciliation is more than national legislation," he said. "It is also what we're seeing in the provinces and around the country. There is more political activity. There is more cross-sectarian political activity."

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