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Bill would bring back Baathists

27 March, 2007

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BAGHDAD: Iraq's prime minister and president have approved a draft law allowing many former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to their government jobs, and it could be voted on this week, officials said Monday.

The legislation, seen by the United States as crucial to pacifying Iraq, will go to parliament as soon as it is reviewed by Cabinet officials, said Ahmed Shames, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S.-led occupation authority stripped thousands of members of Saddam's ruling Baath Party of their jobs. The law has been a target of criticism by the minority Sunnis, whose most aggrieved elements have fought a bloody insurgency against the Shiite-led Iraqi government and U.S. forces.

"This law will be a pillar in building national reconciliation and in starting the process of healing and rehabilitation," al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani said in a statement announcing the draft's completion.

Under U.S. pressure, Maliki agreed last year to readdress the issue of former Baathists by early this year. Some U.S. officials had recently warned that the efforts were stalled.

The draft, which was released by the U.S. Embassy early today, would let all but the three highest levels of Baathists return to their jobs, provided they had not been involved in criminal activity. All those who lost their jobs would collect a pension. It was unclear how many former Baathists would benefit from the legislation.

Sadiq al-Rikabi, al-Maliki's political adviser, said the draft would probably go before parliament this week and top officials would pressure lawmakers to pass it quickly.

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called for such a measure Monday in a farewell news conference, at which he repeatedly urged Iraqi leaders to quickly resolve their differences or risk losing American support.

"The members of the coalition as well as other countries have made enormous sacrifices to give Iraq a chance to build a stable and democratic order," Khalilzad said. "Iraqis must not lose this opportunity and they must step up and take the tough decisions necessary for success."

Khalilzad, 56, who leaves his post after 21 months and is expected to be approved as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, gave a restrained appraisal of the prospects for stability in Iraq. He pointed to a 25 percent drop in violence in Baghdad under a six-week-old security plan. But he said he has a "caveated optimism" that the country will make progress as quickly as Americans want it to.

He also said he and other U.S. and Iraqi officials had met several times with representatives of Sunni insurgent groups. He declined to name the groups, saying talks are ongoing, but insisted they were "not terrorists" such as al-Qaida in Iraq, but "reconcilable insurgents."

"But there are groups that resisted the democratic change, the change in Iraq. It is our goal to get those groups to be reconciled, to accept, to embrace this new Iraq," he said.


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