Iraq Passes Bill on Baathists

By Joshua Partlow and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 13, 2008

BAGHDAD, Jan. 12 -- The Iraqi parliament passed a bill Saturday intended to make it easier for former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to government jobs and collect their pensions, a significant achievement for the divided legislature on an issue still regarded with raw emotion by many Iraqis.

The agreement marks the passage of the first of the legislative benchmarks, a series of goals the U.S. government had once championed but largely ceased advocating publicly after months of delay, frustration and inaction.

President Bush, in Bahrain on an eight-day trip through the Middle East, and some Iraqi officials described the agreement as an important boost for the prospects of reconciliation between the country's marginalized Sunni Muslim minority and its Shiite Muslim majority, which now dominates Iraqi politics.

The legislation seeks to redress the first order issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003, the controversial decision that drove thousands of Baath Party members from their jobs and alienated them from Iraq's political process. That decision, along with a move to disband the Iraqi army, is widely believed to have fueled the Sunni insurgency that proved so deadly in the following years.

Bush hailed the agreement as "an important sign that the leaders in that country must work together to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people."

At Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, Bush met for the first time in four months with Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, the top American military and civilian officials in Iraq. Bush said the U.S. military was "on track" to achieve its plan of reducing troop strength in Iraq from 20 combat brigades to 15 by the middle of the summer, down to about 130,000 soldiers, or roughly the level last January before he announced the troop "surge." About 160,000 U.S. troops are currently in Iraq.

Bush and Petraeus discussed various scenarios in which even more troops might be pulled out, but both cautioned that it was too early to reach a definitive judgment. Some Pentagon officials are eager to withdraw troops faster in order to lessen the strain on the Army, but Bush and Petraeus appeared skeptical of drawing down too quickly.

A final decision will probably come in March, when Petraeus is scheduled to deliver another report to Congress on conditions in Iraq. "If he didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me," Bush told reporters afterward. "I said to the general, 'If you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you.' "

The assessment of Iraq's progress probably also will rely heavily on political developments such as Saturday's vote in parliament. Although the agreement was widely praised, some Iraqi legislators saw the bill as motivated by the same punitive spirit that they felt guided the initial purge of Hussein's government after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The approval of the "accountability and justice law," with barely more than half the legislators present, means the legislation moves to the country's three-member Presidential Council for final ratification.

"It's a good step for many reasons," said Falah Hassan Shanshal, who leads the parliamentary committee overseeing the legislation and is a member of the Shiite party loyal to influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "First, it condemns all the crimes carried out by the Baath Party and its bloody regime. And this law will allow us to search for and detect every single person who committed a crime against Iraqis."

Supporters of the measure say it is intended to ease the restrictions that prevented former Baathists from holding government jobs. Shanshal acknowledged that certain people joined the Baath Party not for ideological reasons but out of necessity, and for people who have not committed crimes, "it is possible for them to return to public life."

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