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Baathists key to revised plan

WASHINGTON – Serious new divisions have emerged between the Bush administration and its Iraqi allies over the Baghdad government’s refusal to enact a reform that the White House considers crucial to its new strategy for bringing the country’s violence under control.

In spite of a commitment by Iraq’s prime minister to its passage, legislation that would ease rules barring former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from government service has been blocked by the country’s Shiite-dominated parliament.

U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed confidence that Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, would work for passage of “de-Baathification” reform. However, they now have begun to express disappointment at the Iraqi stalemate, saying that the reform remains a top political priority and is essential to convince the country’s Sunni minority that it can receive fair treatment in the new system.

One U.S. official said the reform, far from advancing as promised, was now “moving backward” and is “almost dead in the water.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and State Department official David Satterfield, her top Iraq adviser, paid an unannounced visit to Baghdad last weekend for consultations with top Iraqi officials. Aides said they came away discouraged on this issue.

Administration officials also have expressed disappointment in the work of a special Iraqi panel on de-Baathification headed by Ahmad Chalabi, the American-trained financier who became controversial as an advocate for the Iraq war.

The dimming prospects for reform hold troubling implications for the administration’s new strategy on Iraq, which relies heavily on political reconciliation between Sunni Arabs and Shiites as a way to stem the sectarian violence which has gripped the country for the past year.

President Bush ordered 21,500 additional combat troops to Iraq last month as part of a new U.S. strategy to establish order in Baghdad. But the objective of establishing order is to allow the government to achieve political progress and ethnic reconciliation, Bush and his aides have said.

The administration considers de-Baathification reform, along with legislation dividing up the country’s oil wealth, to be the two most important political steps the country can take to reconcile its warring factions. But while U.S. military officials have been buoyed by early results of the security push, the reconciliation legislation has yet to advance.

The new conflict between the U.S. officials and their Iraqi counterparts underscores the difficulty of reaching reconciliation and the fragility of the partnership with the Iraqi government.

After months of frustration last year trying to convince al-Maliki to take steps toward political reconciliation, U.S. officials late last year convinced him to commit to a series of “benchmarks.” One of them was the de-Baathification reform, which al-Maliki committed to implementing by early this year.


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