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Iraq Pushes On With Reinstating Saddam-Era Troops

Room for Saddam-era soldiers, too?

Room for Saddam-era soldiers, too?

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq has reinstated about 20,000 troops from Saddam Hussein's army under an initiative launched in 2008, but officials have denied that the most recent reintegration was related to national elections next month.

Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said that about 13,000 soldiers from Saddam's army, vetted under a system set up to reintegrate, bar or retire them, had returned to the military by the end of 2009.

"Now an order was issued for around 7,000, so that makes 20,000. In the next few days there will also be a final group and the matter will be settled once and for all," he said.

After ousting Saddam in 2003, U.S. forces dissolved Iraqi security forces and purged state institutions of members of his Sunni-dominated Ba'ath Party, moves that fuelled a bloody Sunni insurgency. Iraq has since tried to bring Ba'ath Party members not accused of major crimes back into public life.

Askari denied the reinstatement drive was in any way related to the March 7 parliamentary election in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will face off against fellow politicians from Iraq's Shi'ite minority and others as he seeks another term.

But the decision is sure to be viewed in a political light a little over a week before the elections, which could help Iraq shut the door on seven years of conflict or thrust a country still dogged by violence back into open war.

The reincorporation of Saddam-era soldiers comes on the heels of an election scandal related to allegations that some candidates support the outlawed Baath party.

A shadowy committee triggered an outcry from minority Sunnis when it announced several weeks ago that it would ban hundreds of candidates, including leading secular Sunnis, from standing for election because of their purported links to Ba'athists.

Al-Maliki, who is facing a new threat from secularists, including those banned by the committee, supported the move.

Some candidates have been cleared and others replaced by their parties, and the country appears to be edging away from crisis. Anything related to the army, which under Saddam carried out bloody attacks on enemies of the Ba'ath Party, is also a controversial issue.

Nor will it go unnoticed that completion of steps to reintegrate the 20,000 soldiers takes place just days before the election, in which members of the army and police participate.

The committee has also put forward the names of hundreds of members of the security forces it says should be sacked for Ba'athist ties.