Al-Maliki makes bid to former Baathists

Iraqi leader offers pensions, army posts

December 17, 2006|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Molly Hennessy-Fiske,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government reached out to former members of Saddam Hussein's regime yesterday, inviting them to claim government pensions and rejoin the army in a gesture meant to calm the country's sectarian passions.

"The Iraqi army opens its doors to officers and soldiers from the former army who wish to serve the country," al-Maliki said during a national reconciliation conference of politicians and sectarian leaders in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

Al-Maliki has been under increasing pressure from the U.S. to improve the Iraqi security forces, which were dismantled and purged of supporters of Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime after the dictator was ousted in 2003. But, exposing fissures that have beset al-Maliki's struggling government as the country descended into civil war, several Shiite and Sunni groups rejected the proposal, arguing that it would reward insurgents and former stalwarts of the Hussein regime.

Government officials have long suggested embracing some former members of the Baath Party. Al-Maliki insisted yesterday that the plan would not include those who had killed Iraqi civilians, effectively locking out admitted members of the violent insurgency.

Supporters of the plan said it will not only dispel simmering Sunni unrest by giving the once-powerful sect a positive role in Iraqi society but also raise the skill level of the army, which has been criticized for its dependence on U.S. forces.

Yesterday, the Bush administration said it was encouraged by al-Maliki's remarks and urged the parties at the reconciliation conference to "chart a course that brings stability and security to a unified and democratic Iraq," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Bush discussed plans for the conference with al-Maliki for a half-hour Friday via secure video.

The prime minister talked about providing greater security, particularly in Baghdad, "by going after all sources of violence, including insurgents and militias," Johndroe said.

Al-Maliki also expressed a growing desire in the country for more Iraqi political leaders to "come together for the common objective of stabilizing Iraq and promoting the rule of law," Johndroe said.

Yesterday, al-Maliki said that some former leaders of Hussein's Baath Party are not welcome, but that parliament should review laws concerning the rank and file to ensure that they "embody the principle of forgiveness."

"We draw a distinction between Baathists whose hands are not stained with blood and those who committed the most heinous crimes against Iraqis and still continue to kill innocent people," al-Maliki said.

Many Sunni politicians greeted the announcement with enthusiasm.

"We should help those who initiated this process. It is a step toward success," said Naseer Ani, a member of parliament from the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party.

Ani said he will urge former army officers to reapply for military jobs so that "we can make use of their expertise."

Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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