The government in Iraq moves to reach out to some former Baathists, but few are convinced, writes Salah Hemeid
Under American pressure, Iraq's Shia-Kurdish- dominated parliament on Saturday passed a controversial law that would allow some former officials from the Iraqi Baath Party to return to their government jobs while maintaining a strict ban on their leaders. The bill, known as the Justice and Accountability Bill, is the first of several promised measures intended to encourage disgruntled Sunni Arabs to join the stalled political process.
The legislation, expected to be approved by the Presidential Council, was billed by government leaders as opening the door for the reinstatement of thousands of low-level Baathists barred from public life after the 2003 US invasion. The Bush administration had urged the government in Iraq to implement measures to help bridge the deep rift between Sunni Arabs and Shias and Kurds.
The new legislation abolishes the controversial "de-Baathification law" enacted by Paul Bremer, Washington's proconsul in Iraq after the invasion. Under the new law, pensions will be paid to former Baathists while those who were in high-level ranks are blocked from returning to government jobs. The law is expected to allow as many as 30,000 former state employees to return to their jobs. It also allows victims of alleged past crimes and corruption to sue those who are implicated. Former members of the Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary force, and those found by a new committee to have committed serious crimes against the Iraqi people, would be barred from government and would not receive pensions.
President George W Bush, travelling in the region this week, praised the vote, calling it "an important step towards reconciliation". But surprisingly, US officials in Baghdad reserved judgment on the move, at least for now. "We still have to go through it," said US embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo, while Colonel Steven Boylan, a spokesman for US military command, said the army would not comment before seeing a translation of the legislation. The US position was further blurred when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Baghdad Tuesday from Riyadh, where she was accompanying Bush, in a short trip described by officials as an attempt to press for more progress on political reconciliation.
The new legislation would be the first measure enacted of those sought by Bush to help reconcile Iraq's warring factions. Other so-called benchmark laws continue to be stalled, including measures that would allow for provincial elections, contemplated constitutional changes sought by Sunni Arabs, and the controversial oil law. However, it was unclear how far the law would go towards soothing Sunni Arabs who have strongly denounced the government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. Exiled leaders of the Baath Party in neighbouring countries denounced the law, saying the party will continue fighting the Americans and the government until toppling both. Sunni political leaders who participate in the political process rejected the law and said it would actually force many former Baath Party members out of current government jobs and into retirement.
Both the government in Iraq and the United States hoped that the measure would help bring stability to the violence-ravaged country, and eventually clear the way for troop reductions some time this year. Al-Maliki had said that security gains made after last year's US troop "surge" needed to be bolstered by national reconciliation and a revival in the political process as well as in economic growth. He vowed to do his utmost in 2008 to devolve state authority.
In welcoming the move, Bush said additional troop withdrawals beyond those already planned through this summer would depend solely on conditions in Iraq, which were being reviewed by General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq who is scheduled to report to Congress in March or April on recommended troop levels. US officials said they plan to hand over responsibility for security in the remaining nine Iraqi provinces. They indicated that if current security trends hold up, the US would withdraw four brigades from Iraq by the end of July, bringing the number of troops back to its pre-surge level of around 130,000.
Whether all this is good news or not depends largely on Iraq's feuding factions. Attempts in the past, including those made by the Arab League, to fashion a national reconciliation plan have failed because of rifts among pro-US groups and between pro-US groups and the anti- occupation resistance. The government in Iraq has to show if it is willing to take concrete steps beyond its usual rhetoric.
In his visit to Cairo last week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called for Arab efforts to help realise national reconciliation in Iraq. Zebari, who made his remarks after a meeting with Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, urged the Cairo-based League to reactivate its reconciliation efforts, claiming that the security and economic situation in Iraq is now appropriate for such an endeavour. Later in Amman Zebari said Moussa would dispatch his deputy, Algerian diplomat Ahmed Ben Heli, to Baghdad for talks on preparing a new reconciliation in Cairo.
However, top Arab diplomats told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Arab League, which has painfully learned lessons from past rounds, has no plans to send Ben Heli to Baghdad soon, or before it receives assurances that its efforts won't be torpedoed by feuding Iraqi groups. Reportedly, Moussa is especially dismayed by the sectarian discourse used by some of these groups and want them to adopt a national and unifying agenda, said one diplomat familiar with the Iraq file.