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Iraqi Premier Calls For Reconciliation At Conference

Iraqi soldier stands next to posters promoting reconciliation reading, 'By Iraq our chest will be adorned' in Baghdad on December 15 (epa) December 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- At the Iraqi government's National Reconciliation Conference today in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki invited former members of Iraq's military under Saddam Hussein to join the country's new army.

"The new Iraqi Army has opened its door to members of the former army," he said. "The national unity government is willing to assimilate those who wish to serve their country on a professional basis, depending on the army's capability to integrate them."

Al-Maliki also called on parliament to "review the constitutional items regarding such committees as de-Ba'athification and the Anticorruption Committee to embody the principle of forgiveness."

Speaking at the conference, al-Maliki also reached across sectarian lines for a way to end the violence. "We call for a serious review of existing political formations to restructure them along national lines, and for a broad national front that will include all political groups, transcending narrow affiliations and loyalties to accommodate competent and expert elements in order to run the country without sectarian, ethnic and partisan quotas," he said.

Iraqi defense officials have recruited former Hussein-era officers in the past, but only to junior ranks.

Presidential spokesman Kamaran Qaradaghi told the conference that President Jalal Talabani also backs national reconciliation.

The Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. body that ran Iraq following the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, disbanded the Iraqi Army and purged members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party from higher levels of public administration in the first months of the occupation.

Accelerating Handover To Iraqi Troops

Al-Maliki, reaching out to those officers and soldiers who lost their posts, imposed few conditions on the return of former military personnel. He only cautioned that those returning should be loyal to the country and conduct themselves professionally. Al-Maliki also said the army's size might limit the number accepted, but those unable to join would be given pensions.

Al-Maliki addressing the conference on December 16 (epa)

Former troops already have the option of rejoining the Iraqi Army, but the outreach and pension offer was an apparent concession to a long-standing demand by Sunni politicians.

The prime minister said the Iraqi and U.S. governments have agreed that the process of handing over security from U.S. to Iraqi forces must be accelerated.

"While we appreciate the role played by the coalition forces in helping Iraq get rid of the dictatorship, the government is aware that it is time to assume full responsibility for the country's security," he said. "Agreement has been reached between the Iraqi government and the multinational forces to accelerate the handover to the Iraqi forces."

The U.S. military has been training a new 300,000-strong army as part of a plan to eventually withdraw its own 135,000 troops. But Sunnis view the Shi'ite-dominated military with suspicion and there are deep concerns about its sectarian loyalties.

In other news, U.S. and Iraqi forces killed one militant and arrested six people during operations against a Shi'ite death-squad leader in Baghdad today. The military said the target -- who apparently evaded capture -- was believed to lead a group of militants who conducted kidnappings and killings in the city.

The raids were conducted in Al-Sadr City, a heavily populated Shi'ite area of the capital that is also a stronghold for Shi'ite militiamen.

(with material from news agencies)

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