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."
When the U.S. military overthrew Hussein in 2003, the first order of business for the Coalition Provisional Authority was to disband the Baath Party that Hussein had fashioned into his personal empire over more than three decades in power.
CPA Order 1, or the "De-Baathification of Iraqi Society," ordered members of the Baath Party's top four echelons "removed from their positions and banned from future employment in the public sector." The number of Baathists purged is in dispute, but Ali al-Lami, spokesman for the current de-Baathification commission, said 150,000 people were removed between May and September 2003.
Since early 2004, when the de-Baathification commission began its work overseeing who could come back, about 102,000 former Baathists have returned to their jobs, Lami said. Existing rules prohibit members from the top three levels from government work but allowed people on the fourth level to return in some circumstances, he said.
It remains unclear how many former Baath Party members would be eligible to return under the new legislation. Lami estimated that 3,500 people from the third-highest Baathist rank, or Shubah members, would be allowed to apply for pension payments but would still be kept from their jobs. About 13,000 people from the fourth rank, known as Firqa members, would be eligible to return, but he expected that many would not.
"Most of them are either working outside the country and they don't want to go back to Iraq, or they're afraid somebody will take revenge on them or they got involved with the militant groups," Lami said. "Because for two years, we have been demanding that they come to the de-Baathification commission, but there was no response."
The new measure would also prohibit Baathists who worked in Hussein's security services from returning to jobs, as well as ban their return to some of the most influential agencies, such as the Interior Ministry, Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry, Shanshal said.
"There is potential with most laws in Iraq right now for sectarian abuse, and certainly that potential would be there as well, which is why the implementation is going to be important," a U.S. official in Baghdad said this month on condition of anonymity.
The new measure could lead to a new purge of members of the current Iraqi government, Lami said, including about 7,000 officers in the Interior Ministry. Even influential Iraqi security force officials who used to be Baathists could face removal.
"The commander of the Baghdad security plan and his assistants, according to the new law, they should retire," he said.
Many Iraqis say the concept of de-Baathification is hampered by the prevailing assumption that anyone who achieved a high rank in the party was by definition complicit in crimes during the Hussein era.
"There's no question that the original de-Baathification program basically looked at the entire senior leadership of the Baath Party and made a collective judgment. The intent of this law is to roll back part of that but not all of it," said the U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the topic.
"So you know, is it making a collective judgment about people who were higher up in the Baath Party? Yeah, it is. I still don't think that that means it doesn't represent political progress. Because it does represent political progress. This is certainly one of those cases where we shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," the official said.
During the sometimes bitter negotiations over the measure in recent weeks, strong objections were raised by parliament members from Sadr's party, who regarded the proposed legislation as offering too many concessions to the murderous former administration and by those sympathetic to Baathists who felt it did not offer real concessions to the Sunni minority that was marginalized after the war.
During the reading of the legislation in parliament Saturday, members of the Sunni bloc led by Saleh al-Mutlaq walked out, according to an aide to the deputy speaker of parliament. Some Sunnis wanted no restrictions on former Baath Party members.
But members of the largest Sunni coalition in parliament agreed to the new measure. Adnan al-Dulaimi, the group's leader, said the legislation was fair to low-ranking former Baathists and allowed the higher-ranking Shubah members to receive pensions, "which I consider good and acceptable."
"The current rules, on the other hand, deprived a huge number of Iraqi people who didn't commit any crimes and didn't commit any action that violated the law and the constitution," he said.
Some Iraqi officials believe the new measure institutionalizes a punishment against people who acquiesced to Hussein at a time when publicly opposing him could have resulted in a death sentence.
"The problem is that the new leaders have gone in the direction of revenge and vengeance, rather than going into healing those wounds," said Izzat Shabender, a Shiite who is on the de-Baathification committee in parliament. "Even if this law is passed, it cannot achieve the goal -- which is opening a new chapter with the Baathists. . . . It's got nothing to do with reconciliation. The culture of reconciliation does not exist in the heads of the Iraqi leaders."
But with parliament nearly paralyzed by infighting, any agreement was something many Iraqis found heartening. As the prominent Shiite politician Humam Hamoudi said, "The most important thing about this new law is that it is an Iraqi law."
Abramowitz reported from Camp Arifjan. Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Zaid Sabah and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.