BAGHDAD — The Iraqi Governing Council softened its stance Tuesday on the possible reinstatement of some members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to their civil service positions.
Ministries will form committees to consider possible exemptions to the policy of "de-Baathification" of the ranks of Iraq's enormous government bureaucracy, the council said in a directive. It said the new policy could pave the way for some former party members to either return to their jobs or be reinstated for the purpose of receiving retirement benefits.
De-Baathification has been a highly contentious question since the fall of Hussein's regime, in part because of the practical difficulties presented by a large-scale purge of seasoned professionals from their jobs in government ministries.
Only two weeks earlier, the Governing Council, led by Ahmad Chalabi, had announced a harder-edged approach to purging the government of full members of the now-outlawed party, through which Hussein maintained tight control over the country. Tuesday's revision came on Chalabi's last day as president of the council, a post that rotates among nine of the council's members -- now numbering 24 -- and changes hands each month.
A spokesman for Chalabi, Entifahd Qanbar, played down the significance of the change, saying the earlier policy had allowed for review of some requests by party members for reinstatement. He said, however, that the goal of excluding prominent former Baathists from public life remained a priority.
"The issue of removing full members of the Baath Party from government positions is very essential to the start of a new age in Iraq," he told journalists.
The council's incoming president, Iyad Allawi, heads a political faction founded by former Baathists, albeit ones who left Iraq before Hussein came to power.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, Charles Heatly, said that exemptions to the policy of excluding ranking Baathists from positions of authority had been rare but that reinstatement could be considered if someone was thought to be essential for a particular job, and if the person had not committed any crimes in the old position.
Up to 5% of Iraq's 24 million people were members of the party at one time, but a much smaller number -- estimated at between 25,000 and 50,000 Iraqis -- held higher-ranking posts. That was the group targeted by the provisional authority four months ago, when the American administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, ordered the dismissal of former ranking party members.
The U.S. has maintained, however, that the scope and nature of de-Baathification should ultimately be the province of the Iraqi council, whose members were appointed in July after weeks of discussion with the U.S.-led coalition.
U.S. troops, meanwhile, continue to be hit by one to two dozen small-scale attacks a day.
An explosive device was hurled at a U.S. convoy in a relatively tranquil northern Baghdad neighborhood Tuesday, injuring a soldier. Another soldier drowned and a second was missing after their vehicle plunged into a canal just west of Baghdad on Monday night.
This morning, the military said a soldier died Tuesday from a "non-hostile" gunshot at a camp near the town of Balad. It gave no details.
In one small step toward normality, U.S. authorities announced Tuesday that Baghdad's curfew would begin an hour later, at midnight. They cited improving security.
Baghdad's streets were largely deserted after dark in the first months after the war, except for patrolling military vehicles, but there has been a gradual resumption of evening activity.