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Iraq: Will Passage Of New Law Appease Sunnis?

Is Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government showing signs of progress? (epa) In what is being trumpeted as a major political accomplishment for the Iraqi government, the Council of Representatives on January 12 unanimously passed the Accountability and Justice Law, which revises the de-Ba'athification order passed under the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003.

Under the de-Ba'athification law, thousands of Ba'athists were dismissed from their government jobs. The new legislation, once ratified by the three-member Presidential Council, would allow many of the former Ba'ath Party members to apply for reinstatement to their government posts.

Many Sunnis complained that the de-Ba'athification law was overly broad and amounted to collective punishment. The new legislation is believed to go a long way in easing the fears of Sunni Arabs, who once dominated the Hussein regime, of being completely sidelined.

The initial de-Ba'athification law was also seen as one of the main sources of anger fueling the Sunni-led insurgency against the Shi'ite-dominated government and the U.S. occupation. It is hoped that the Accountability and Justice Law mollifies much of the Sunni anger and persuades many Ba'athists to surrender their weapons and join the political process.

Mahmud Uthman, an independent Kurdish lawmaker, told the Xinhua news agency on January 12 that the new law would close the sectarian gap between Shi'a and Sunnis. "If this law is implemented correctly on the ground, it will allow many Ba'athists to return to the public life and will curb the violence," he said. "I think it is a right step toward the national reconciliation in Iraq."

Passing the legislation was also a victory for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Almost a year after the U.S. "surge" policy was initiated to allow breathing space for al-Maliki's government to move the political process forward, the government passed one of its most important pieces of legislation. Passing the law showed that al-Maliki's government, though slow, could indeed deliver results.

Punishing The Guilty

The new law is meant to punish those Ba'athists that committed crimes during the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but allow those who did not a chance to return to their jobs. The law distinguishes between two categories of Ba'athist: senior officials, and mid-level and lower-ranking officials.

Senior-level Ba'athists, who were in the top five of the party's 10 levels and responsible for implementing the former regime's policies, would still be banned from returning to their positions. However, if they were not convicted of any crimes, they would be retired with full pension.

Mid-level and lower-ranking Ba'athists who also did not have a criminal record would be allowed reinstatement to their positions. A seven-member panel will determine which mid and lower-level officials can be reinstated and which senior-level Ba'athists are eligible for their pensions.

However, no former Ba'athists can return to their positions in the judicial, ministerial, or security bureaucracies, or in the Foreign or Finance ministries. And members of Hussein's Fidayin security force won't receive pensions or be able to return to their jobs.

The new legislation also includes an article allowing victims of the Hussein regime to apply to special tribunals for monetary compensation.

New Law Still Divisive

While on the surface the decision by the Council of Representatives to pass the Accountability and Justice Law seemed to have been an extraordinary step toward national reconciliation, there were indications that the law could also prove to be divisive.

Soon after word spread that the law was passed, the Iraqi Ba'ath Party condemned it. Party spokesman Dr. Abu Muhammad issued a statement posted on the website on January 12 describing the law as essentially the de-Ba'athification law with a different name.

"Changing the name of the first law issued by the American occupation governor of Iraq [Paul Bremer] is a meager attempt to beautify the fascistic and brutal nature of the law, which brought shame on scandal on the occupation and its agents.... This will not change the objective of the Ba'ath Party, its members and supporters in continuing the resistance hand in hand with other resistance factions," the statement said.

Underscoring the divisiveness of the issue, the vote took place while the parliament barely had a quorum. Although the law was passed unanimously, only 143 lawmakers in the 275-member Council of Representatives were in attendance.

Following the law's passage, several Sunni political parties issued a joint statement rejecting the law, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on January 13. The Iraqi National List, the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, the Independent Arab Bloc, the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, and independent members of the Iraqi Accordance Front said they had refused to vote on the law, calling it "difficult to apply."

The opponents said application of the law was "unrealistic" because it forbids the return of the Ba'ath Party, whether politically, ideologically, in practice, and under any other party name. Furthermore, they described the law as being "vague" and therefore easy to be misused by those looking to settle scores with former Ba'athists.

Salah al-Mutlaq, leader of the Sunni-led Front for National Dialogue, told McClatchy Newspapers on January 12 that all criminals, including Ba'athists, should be tried fairly by the Iraqi justice system, regardless of party affiliation. "Justice should be for everybody, accountability should be for everybody. You can not make the accountability only for Ba'athists," al-Mutlaq said.

Ba'athists May Be Wary Of New Law

Undoubtedly, reversing the de-Ba'athificaiton process has been one of the thorniest issues in Iraqi politics. Many Shi'ite groups, particularly Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc, have been strongly opposed to allowing any Ba'athists to enter the mainstream, for fear they may one day take power. Indeed, after 35 years of repressive policies by the former regime, Shi'a and Kurds have reason to be wary of the Ba'ath Party.

Ba'athists, too, may feel unease at the new legislation after more than four years of being sidelined in the new post-Hussein political landscape. Many may feel unwilling to confess their former affiliation or complicity in crimes in exchange for their government jobs or pension. Since there was no guarantee of amnesty, the price of incarceration may be too high for some Ba'athists to enter the mainstream.

Furthermore, some Ba'athists may also be wary of revealing themselves for fear of retribution. Former Ba'athists coming in from the shadows may face the ire of those who want to settle old scores. In this instance, it may be difficult for Ba'athists, who have been marginalized to believe that the Shi'a-dominated government would be able to protect them.

Finally, to temper Shi'ite and Kurdish fears, the new law bars former Ba'athists from certain positions in government, essentially making them second-class citizens. Many Ba'athists joined the party out of necessity, not out of party loyalty and punishment via association may further inflame the ire of the Ba'athists and the Sunni Arab community in general. For many, it may reaffirm their fears that the current government intends to sideline them as much as possible.

Iraq In Transition

Iraq In Transition

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.