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Iraq: Law Passed Allowing Ba'athists To Regain Government Jobs

Iraq's Presidency Council has issued a controversial law that should allow tens of thousands of former lower-ranking Ba'ath Party members to regain their jobs in the government bureaucracy and public services.

The passage in December of the Accountability and Justice Law by the Iraqi parliament cleared the way for the signing by the Presidency Council in Baghdad on February 3. All that remains now is for the measure to be published in the official government gazette for it to become law.

The bill is designed to bring back into the country's administration thousands of people with experience running the machinery of government -- expertise that has been lacking since the de-Ba'athification process dismembered Iraq's civil-service and military establishments.

But most of all, it is meant to serve as a key building block for national reconciliation. Most of those sacked were Sunni Arabs, the ruling elite in Saddam Hussein's regime, and this is an attempt to remove one of the major grievances that has driven some Sunnis to support the insurgency in Iraq.

The Accountability and Justice Law, as its name suggests, does not give free reinstatement to everybody. The top four tiers of the Ba'ath Party's 10 ranks are excluded from the measure. And any Iraqi who has suffered at the hands of a Ba'ath Party member has the right to file a lawsuit against that individual.

The law also creates a seven-person committee to oversee the process of rehiring former party members. This body replaces the controversial De-Ba'athification Commission, which purged the party members in the first place.

But not everyone is happy about the new arrangements. Parliamentary Legislation Committee member Izzat al-Shahbandar has told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that the new law is still permeated by the "spirit of revenge" that characterized the original de-Ba'athification law. He said the new commission will not be an independent arbiter, but just "a practical extension" of the old law.

The measure is the first piece of legislation to emerge from a series of 18 bills designed to facilitate national reconciliation among the majority Shi'a, the minority Sunnis, and ethnic Kurds. The United States supports those measures as necessary to heal the wounds of conflict during the past five years.

Washington refers to the 18 steps as "benchmarks" for reconciliation. They include bills on how to divide up Iraq's oil wealth, rules for holding provincial elections, and other key measures.

The administration of President George W. Bush sees enactment of the 18 benchmarks as the best way to set the stage for Iraq to emerge from crisis and achieve stability -- which in turn would allow the United States to recall its troops home.

The United States has been urging the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to increase the tempo of political reconstruction during the present lull in the violence.

However, getting the full package of measures enacted into law will not be easy. The Accountability and Justice Law was the subject of bitter debate in parliament, and in the end was signed by only two of the three members of the Presidential Council.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni member of the triumvirate that includes the president and both vice presidents, decided not to sign the document because he objected to the automatic retirement of some 7,000 members of the Iraqi secret police and intelligence services who date from the Hussein era.