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Deal to aid ex-Baathists meets instant opposition

The plan to provide jobs or pensions angers Shiites who recall the political party's tyranny.

March 28, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Before the ink was dry Tuesday on a compromise to allow former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to get government and military jobs, opposition erupted that could jeopardize the measure, one of the "benchmarks" for U.S. troop withdrawal.

The reaction to the proposal to revise one of the laws that has most infuriated Sunni Arabs suggested that the measure could face stiff opposition in the Shiite Muslim-dominated parliament.

"Our opinion is that this is an attempt to return Baathists into the highest echelons of power within the coming six months ... without taking into account the many innocent victims who suffered from the Baathists," said Ali Lami, a member of the heavily Shiite commission charged with removing ranking Baath members from government.

"I think there will be great opposition within the parliament concerning this law," Lami added.

The Bush administration considers reform of the so-called de-Baathification process one of the most important steps the Iraqi government can take to reconcile Sunni Arabs with the country's new Shiite leaders and halt deadly sectarian fighting.

Lami suggested that the bill, a product of talks between Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, had been forced on the Iraqi government by the United States.

"We saw both the Arabic and the English copies of this draft law, and it is clear to us that the Arabic one has been translated from the English copy. Therefore, we sense foreign interference in this matter," Lami said.

Some Shiite and Kurdish politicians suggested that Talabani had pushed through a draft to be able to answer critics at an Arab summit this week in Saudi Arabia.

There, Iraq is expected to face pressure to pass constitutional amendments to address Sunni grievances.

Iraqi politicians said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had pressed hard for an agreement before he ended his tenure and left the country Monday. Hours after he flew away on a U.S. military helicopter, the embassy released a statement in which Khalilzad heralded the new initiative as a "major pillar of a much-needed national compact among Iraqis."

Iraq's Shiite prime minister and Kurdish president jointly proposed the draft, which provides for the return of all but the most senior members of Hussein's ousted regime, provided they had not committed any crimes. Those who did not qualify for government or military jobs would be entitled to a modest pension.

The proposed bill also seeks to replace the political commission charged with implementing the de-Baathification policy with a panel of seven judges, to make it more independent.

Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Khalid Atia said the draft was one of numerous proposals, none of which has made it onto parliament's floor for debate and a vote.

The de-Baathification policy was imposed in 2003 under the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority headed by L. Paul Bremer III.

The sweeping ban, which deprived the new government of some of its most skilled and experienced personnel, was criticized in the Iraq Study Group report released in December.

It also alienated a huge swath of Sunnis, many of whom joined the Baath Party to secure jobs, and drove them into the arms of the anti-U.S. insurgency.

"They created a lot of enemies, they created a lot of opposition, they hindered reconciliation and they hindered security," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker and longtime critic of the policy.

In 2004, U.S. officials decided they had gone too far and began pressing for reform. But Shiite and Kurdish leaders, many of whom suffered greatly under Hussein, resisted any relaxing of the rules.

"The de-Baathification commission is weighted with Shiites who clearly have scores to settle," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group.

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zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writers Saif Hameed and Said Rifai contributed to this report.

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