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Iraqi bill may block Sunnis from office

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- A day after the Iraqi parliament passed legislation billed as the first significant political step forward in Iraq after months of deadlock, there were troubling questions - and troubling silences - about the measure's actual effects.

The measure, known as the Justice and Accountability Law, is meant to open government jobs to former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party - the bureaucrats, officials, city workers, teachers, soldiers and police who made the government work until they were barred from office after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

According to a translated copy of the law, a whole new rung of former party members would be allowed back into government jobs. Where the old de-Baathification law barred members of the top four of the party's six levels, the new measure would bar three, theoretically allowing as many as 30,000 people to rejoin the government. And the vast majority of the ones still excluded, who held top national- and state-level jobs, would still be eligible for pensions if they had not been implicated in crimes or corruption cases.

But past that, the legislation is at once confusing and controversial, a document riddled with loopholes and caveats to the point that some Sunni and Shiite officials say it could actually exclude more former Baathists than it lets back in - particularly in the crucial security ministries that U.S. officials have called the key to their plans for eventual withdrawal from Iraq.

Under that interpretation, the law would be directly at odds with the American campaign to draft Sunni Arabs into so-called Awakening militias with the aim of integrating them into the police and military forces. That plan has been praised as being mainly responsible for the sharp drop in violence during the past year and as being the most effective weapon against insurgent groups such as al-Qaida in Mesopotamia.

Among Iraqi officials, interpretations varied widely. In general, Shiite politicians hailed it as an olive branch to Sunni Arabs who have long complained that de-Baathification has been used to marginalize them. But some Sunni Arabs say it is at best an incremental improvement over the old system, and at worst even harsher.

"This law includes some good articles, and it's better than the last de-Baathification law because it gives pensions to third-level Baathists," said Khalaf Aulian, a Sunni Arab politician who opposed the legislation. "But I don't like the law as a whole, because it will remain as a sword on the neck of the people."

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