Concession may return Baathists

TUESDAY, NOV. 7, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq – A day after Saddam Hussein was sentenced to hang, the Shiite-dominated government offered a major concession Monday to his Sunni backers that could see thousands of members of the ousted dictator’s Baath party reinstated in their jobs.

With a tight curfew holding down violence after Saddam’s guilty verdict and death sentence, the government reached out to disaffected Sunnis in hopes of enticing them away from the insurgency, which has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and is responsible for the vast majority of U.S. casualties.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of five more American troops, two in a helicopter crash north of Baghdad and three in fighting west of the capital. The deaths raised to 18 the number of U.S. forces killed in the first six days of November.

Relentless sectarian killings also persisted despite the extraordinary security precautions. Fifty-nine bodies were discovered Sunday and Monday across Iraq, police said. But with no surge in violence, authorities were gradually lifting the restrictions in Baghdad and two restive Sunni provinces: Pedestrians were allowed back on the capital’s streets Monday afternoon, and the international airport was to reopen this morning.

Around the country, jubilant Shiites celebrated the verdict while Sunnis held defiant counter-demonstrations.

Iraq’s appeals court is expected to rule on an appeal by Saddam’s lawyers by the middle of January, the chief prosecutor said Monday, setting in motion a possible execution by mid-February. If the ruling is upheld, Iraq’s three-man presidential council is pledged to allow Saddam’s hanging to take place. The execution must be carried out within 30 days of the appeals court’s decision.

Sunday’s verdict and Monday’s opening to the Sunnis were seen as a welcome break for the United States, which had recently called for the Iraqi government to stop purging members of Saddam’s Baath party from their jobs. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, has balked at U.S. requests to set up an amnesty for insurgents.

Al-Maliki has been engaged in a public feud with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad since last month, when the prime minister disputed the envoy’s announcement that he had agreed to a timeline for progress in quelling violence and encouraging Sunnis to join the political process.

On Monday, there were indications Khalilzad was preparing to leave his post.

National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, during a visit to Baghdad on Friday, told al-Maliki that Khalilzad would leave about the first of the year and be replaced by Ryan Crocker, a senior career diplomat who is now ambassador to Pakistan, according to two top aides to the Iraqi leader. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

The United States dissolved and banned the Baath party in May 2003, a month after toppling Saddam. The U.S. later softened its stance, inviting former high-level officers from the disbanded military to join the security forces.

The former top U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, also allowed thousands of teachers who were Baathists to return to work. He conceived of the so-called de-Baathification effort but later found it had gutted key ministries and the military with no replacement personnel among the Iraqi work force and educated elite.

Monday’s political concession to the Sunnis was detailed by a government organization that had been charged with removing Saddam loyalists from state institutions. Under a draft law, which the Shiite-dominated parliament must approve, the organization now plans to amend its rules to enable thousands of former Baath party members to win back their jobs.

“Such a move will be in the interest of Iraq because a Baathist, like any Iraqi citizen, has the right to get back his job,” said Ammar Wajih, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country’s largest Sunni group.

“This decision could move the country toward stability and could be a way to open bridges between the resistance and the Americans,” Wajih said, referring to advances the Americans have pursued with insurgent groups in a bid to end the fighting.


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