By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007
BAGHDAD, Aug. 26 -- Iraq's top five political leaders announced an agreement Sunday night to release thousands of prisoners being held without charge and to reform the law that has kept thousands of members of Saddam Hussein's political party out of government jobs.
The agreement was publicized after several days of meetings between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite; President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni; Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite; and Massoud Barzani, president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
The announcement clears the way for the fractious Iraqi government to ease restrictions on former Baath Party members, one of the political initiatives President Bush considers key to Iraq's success. The agreement, reached not quite two weeks before Bush is to receive a progress report on Iraq, could face a stiff battle in Iraq's divided parliament.
Also adding to strain ahead of the U.S. report, Maliki denounced U.S. military raids in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and again lashed out at American critics, saying Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and other Democrats who have called for his ouster should "come to their senses" and stop treating Iraq like "one of their villages."
Although details of the proposed revisions to the de-Baathification law were unclear late Sunday, advisers to the political leaders said the changes would allow former members of Hussein's party to hold civil service jobs unless they had been high-level leaders or were accused of committing a specific crime. The new law would replace Iraq's Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification with a new committee dedicated to prosecuting former party members accused of crimes.
"The new law says that it is not a crime to have been in the Baath Party," an adviser to Hashimi said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. "De-Baathification is canceled."
Reforming the law has long been considered a top priority of the Iraqi government, but the political parties have disagreed on the best course of action. Many Shiites and Kurds have objected to allowing Sunni ex-Baathists into jobs related to national security and are nervous that they could regain dominance in the government.
In March, Maliki and then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad announced a revised de-Baathification law, but the proposal disintegrated within 24 hours after religious Shiites opposed key elements of it.
Hiwa Osman, an adviser to Talabani, said all five parties in the meeting agreed to the draft law. "This is in its very final stages, and everyone approves," Osman said, adding that the draft would not be made public immediately. "It sets out a road map."
The politicians agreed to release an estimated 1,700 prisoners who are being detained without specific charges. The issue of the detainees has been a major concern of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc, which pulled its cabinet ministers out of Maliki's government this month.
Hashimi's adviser said Sunni leaders are pleased with the agreement to release the detainees, though he added that the Accordance Front has no plans to rejoin the government.
"The prisoners are important, but that was just one of 11 demands" the group made when resigning from the government, he said. "We left the government and we are not going back ever unless they meet all of the demands."
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed.