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Law lets Baathists return to jobs

Mon., Feb. 4, 2008

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s presidency council issued a law Sunday that will allow thousands of Saddam Hussein-era officials to return to government jobs, legislation viewed by the Bush administration as central to mending deep fissures between minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds and the majority Shiites who now wield power.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, said today it accidentally killed nine Iraqi civilians during an operation targeting al-Qaida near Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad. The strike Saturday was the deadliest known case of mistaken identity in recent months.

Shortly after the incident, American officers met with a Muslim sheik representing citizens in the area, Navy Lt. Patrick Evans told the Associated Press in an e-mail.

“We offer our condolences to the families of those who were killed in this incident, and we mourn the loss of innocent civilian life,” Evans said. He added that the incident and the events surrounding it were under investigation.

The new law, which was passed by parliament on Jan. 12, was the first of 18 key U.S.-set benchmarks to become law after months of bitter debate. But it was issued without the signature of the Sunni vice president, and the presidency council cited reservations and plans to seek changes in the bill, clouding hopes it would encourage reconciliation.

Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi objected to provisions in the new law that would pension off 7,000 low-level members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath party – former secret police and intelligence agents who still worked in Iraq’s security apparatus.

Top al-Hashemi aides also said he wanted decisions on exceptions to the law to be handled by the presidency council rather than parliament as the law currently requires.

The presidential council, which also includes President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, issued the law 10 days after receiving it for consideration, as required by Iraq’s constitution.

But the panel also expressed concern “over some items that would hamper the national reconciliation project,” pointing to the clause that would “lead to the exclusion of employees with high qualifications of which Iraqi is in dire need.”

In an apparent face-saving gesture to al-Hashemi, Talabani and Abdul-Mahdi promised they would agree to send amendments back to the 275-member parliament. The law is the first of 18 pieces of benchmark legislation demanded by the Bush administration to promote reconciliation among Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Arab communities and the large Kurdish minority.

U.S. officials have pinned great hopes on the measure and its passage by parliament was welcomed with fanfare by President Bush as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s U.S.-backed government has been heavily criticized for failing to take advantage of a recent lull in violence to make progress on the political front.

“As security has improved, it’s good to see the Iraqis move forward with political reconciliation,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council. “We expect to see more legislative progress in the near term.”


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