Iraq `benchmark' stalls in parliament

November 26, 2007|By Ann M. Simmons and Raheem Salman | Ann M. Simmons and Raheem Salman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- Changes that would ease restrictions on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party rejoining Iraq's civil service and military appeared headed for legislative gridlock after attempts to read a draft bill in parliament disintegrated yesterday into yelling and finger-pointing.

It was the first time that Iraqi lawmakers had taken up any of the so-called major benchmarks that Washington has deemed crucial for the long-term cessation of sectarian violence and national reconciliation.

The Iraqi Cabinet approved changes to a draft of the measure this month.

Though some Iraqi politicians believe the bill would give a free pass to supporters of the former dictator to again occupy powerful positions, other lawmakers have cited a need to put the past behind so the nation can move forward.

Discussion of the measure comes as U.S. officials have said that the relative lull in violence has left a precious window for political progress.

U.S. officials said attacks across Iraq had dropped by 55 percent since the last of 28,500 additional U.S. troops arrived in mid-June as part of a military buildup aimed at suppressing sectarian violence.

Bombings and civilian deaths have decreased in the past six months, but there has been a spike in attacks in recent weeks.

A suicide car bomb killed nine people and wounded 30 yesterday near the Health Ministry in Baghdad, Iraqi police said.

An Iraqi soldier was killed and six wounded when a second explosion occurred after security forces arrived at the scene of a roadside bombing in Baghdad. The earlier bombing wounded two people.

The legislation being considered by parliament would loosen the restrictions on former Baath Party members and address the issue of pensions for former senior members of the military. Some said it would go too far in restoring their rights.

"In my opinion, there is an unannounced public amnesty by the government, that all [Baathists] will return to government offices, whether they made mistakes or not," said Safia Suhail, an opposition party lawmaker. "Then they may reach decision-making positions without punishment to wrongdoers."

Thousands of Baathists were fired from government and military jobs after Hussein was toppled during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Baathists, mainly Sunni Arabs, have long been believed to have played a role in the persecution of Iraq's majority Shiite community during Hussein's tenure.

Baathists have complained of unfair treatment at the hands of subsequent Iraqi administrations. And many have argued that all Baathists should not be punished because of the crimes of some party members.

The initial U.S.-led occupation agency and its Iraqi allies aggressively sought to bar tens of thousands of Baathists from government service - high-ranking government positions as well as teaching jobs at schools.

Since then, more than 45,000 former Baathist members of Hussein's military reportedly have been granted pensions or allowed to return to active service. Some have found other government work.

U.S. officials have since identified reintegrating Baathists into Iraqi society along with legislation to create a mechanism for sharing the country's oil wealth as keys to uniting opposing factions.

However, Iraqi politicians have made little headway.

Ann M. Simmons and Raheem Salman write for the Los Angeles Times.

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