WASHINGTON — Serious new divisions have emerged between the Bush administration and its Iraqi allies over the Baghdad government's refusal to enact a reform that the White House considers crucial to its new strategy for bringing the country's violence under control.
In spite of a commitment by Iraq's prime minister to its passage, legislation that would ease rules barring former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from government service has been blocked by the country's Shiite-dominated parliament.
U.S. officials repeatedly have expressed confidence that Prime Minister Nouri Maliki would work for passage of "de-Baathification" reform. However, they have begun to express disappointment over the Iraqi stalemate, saying that the reform remains a top political priority and is essential to convince the country's Sunni minority that it can receive fair treatment in the new system.
One U.S. official said the reform, far from advancing as promised, was "moving backward" and "almost dead in the water."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and State Department official David Satterfield, her top Iraq advisor, paid an unannounced visit to Baghdad last weekend for consultations with top Iraqi officials. But on this issue, aides said, they came away discouraged.
Administration officials also have expressed disappointment with the work of a special Iraqi panel on de-Baathification headed by Ahmad Chalabi, the U.S.-trained financier who became controversial as an advocate for the invasion of Iraq.
The dimming prospects for reform hold troubling implications for the administration's new strategy on Iraq, which relies heavily on political reconciliation between Sunni Arab and Shiite Muslims as a way to stem the sectarian violence that has gripped the country for the last year.
President Bush ordered 21,500 additional combat troops to Iraq last month as part of a new U.S. strategy to establish order in Baghdad. The goal is to allow the government to achieve political progress and ethnic reconciliation, Bush and his aides have said.
The administration considers de-Baathification reform, along with legislation dividing the country's oil wealth, to be the two most important political steps the country can take to reconcile its warring factions. U.S. military officials have been buoyed by early results of the security push, but the reconciliation legislation has yet to advance.
The new conflict between Washington and the Iraqi leadership underscores the difficulty of reaching reconciliation and the fragility of the U.S. partnership with the Iraqi government.
After months of trying to persuade Maliki to take steps toward political reconciliation, he made a commitment late last year to a series of "benchmarks." One of them was the de-Baathification reform, which Maliki said would be implemented by early this year.
The participation of former Baath Party members has been an issue since 2003, when U.S. officials and their Iraqi allies began an aggressive effort to bar about 30,000 former party members from government service. The ban affected some of the country's top talent, from senior civilian and military officials to low-level government functionaries and even schoolteachers.
Ban went too far
In 2004, U.S. officials came to the view that they had gone too far. They decided the rules had been too harsh, considering that the government is the country's biggest employer. Administration officials also began to fear that they were feeding the insurgency and convincing Sunnis that the Shiite majority in the new Iraq was vengeful.
Now, even Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new senior U.S. commander in Iraq, favors easing the rules so mid-level officers can rejoin the military, giving it the benefit of their experience.
Nevertheless, a large majority of Shiites and Kurds oppose efforts to relax the rules. After decades of persecution by Hussein's government, many fear that the Baath Party still exists in the Iraqi underground, and some contend that many Baath Party members, even low-level government workers, acted as enforcers and spies for Hussein's government and should be excluded.
Michael Rubin, a former official with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran the country from the toppling of the Hussein regime in 2003 to 2004, said that "among more than 80% of the Iraqi population, the policy is quite popular."
"Putting it bluntly, if de-Baathification were left to Iraqi democracy, it would remain as the policy of Iraq," Rubin said.
Key Shiites opposed
The reforms need the approval of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, or parliament. But the proposal has been opposed by key leaders of the two large Shiite parties, the Islamic Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.