Iraq lets Baathists go back to work, U.S. pleasedBy Mussab Al-Khairalla
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's parliament voted on Saturday to let thousands of members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party return to government jobs, winning praise from Washington for achieving a benchmark step toward reconciling warring sects.
The law is the first of a series of measures that Washington has long been pressing the Shi'ite Islamist-led government to pass in an effort to draw the minority Sunni Arab community that held sway under Saddam closer into the political process.
"This law preserves the rights of the Iraqi people after the crimes committed by the Baath Party while also benefiting the innocent members of the party. This law provides a balance," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
Washington had introduced "de-Baathification" when it administered Iraq in 2003-04, but later acknowledged that the measures went too far and asked Iraqi leaders to ease them.
"It's an important step toward reconciliation. It's an important sign that the leaders of that country understand that they must work together to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people," U.S. President George W. Bush said.
He was speaking in Bahrain, where he is holding talks with leaders as part of a Middle East tour.
Iraq's failure to pass the bill last year had been seen as one of the main signs that political progress toward reconciliation was stalled even as security improved.
The United Nations envoy in Baghdad, Staffan de Mistura, told Reuters: "This is good news and a right step in the long overdue direction towards national reconciliation. It is important that this process is as inclusive as possible."
EFFORTS TO END DEADLOCK
The law is part of a wider effort to end a political deadlock that saw the main Sunni Arab bloc pull out of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government last August.
"The law has been passed. We see it as a very good sign of progress and it will greatly benefit Baathists. It was passed smoothly and opposition was small," said Rasheed al-Azzawi, a Sunni member of the committee which helped draft it.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, the cabinet's senior Kurd, hinted at deeper political changes ahead. Boycotts by Sunnis and others had "undermined the government's ability to cope with challenges" and it was time for a shake-up, he told Reuters in an interview in the Kurdish city Sulaimaniya.
"Improvements in security will not last without a serious review of the makeup of the government," Salih said. "The Kurdish Alliance is calling for dramatic, serious reforms of the government. Otherwise the results could be catastrophic."
The Accountability and Justice bill replaces an existing law that Sunni leaders had complained amounted to collective punishment against their sect.
Thousands of Baath party members, many of them Sunni Arabs, were fired from government jobs after Saddam was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, fuelling a long-running insurgency against Iraq's new Shi'ite rulers and U.S. forces.
Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders were reluctant to reward people they blamed for persecuting them under Saddam's regime.
The new law will allow thousands of former party members to apply for reinstatement in the civil service and military. A smaller group of more senior members will still be banned but can now receive their state pensions. Victims of repression under Saddam can sue Baath party members for compensation.
Some Shi'ite lawmakers said the new law was too lax and some Sunnis said it was still too severe, but a majority backed its main provisions in drawn-out, article-by-article voting.
Bush, who met his Iraq ambassador and top military commander during a visit to neighbouring Kuwait on Saturday, said a strategy of sending nearly 30,000 additional troops to the country in 2007 had proven a success.
"Iraq is now a different place from one year ago. Much hard work remains, but levels of violence are significantly reduced. Hope is returning to Baghdad, and hope is returning to towns and villages throughout the country," Bush said. He acknowledged that until last year "our strategy simply wasn't working".
(Additional reporting by Sherko Raouf in Sulaimaniya, and Ross Colvin, Waleed Ibrahim, Ahmed Rasheed and Aws Qusay in Baghdad)
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