Iraq cabinet sends law on Baathists to parliament

Iraq’s cabinet has submitted to parliament a draft bill that would ease curbs on former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party joining the civil service and military, the government said on Wednesday.The cabinet approved changes to the draft late on Tuesday, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.

Officials had previously said the bill had already been sent to parliament. It was unclear what prompted the new amendments to a bill Washington sees as vital to fostering reconciliation between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs.

Many Baath party members were Sunnis who feel persecuted by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government.

The statement gave no details on the amendments.

Washington has been urging Iraq’s leaders all this year to pass key pieces of legislation, including laws that would equitably divide up the country’s vast oil reserves and set a date for provincial elections. There has been little progress.

Ali al-Lami, a senior member of a committee set up to purge Baathists following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, criticized the draft. He confirmed it had been sent to parliament.

“This draft gives pensions to the militia of Saddam, which carried out criminal acts against Iraqis,” he told Reuters.

He said it was the fourth time various parties had made amendments to the draft and said his committee would try to stop it being passed.

On August 26, Iraq’s top five Shi’ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders including Maliki held a much publicized meeting where they agreed to push ahead with the draft legislation.

But the measure might face stiff opposition from within the ruling Shi’ite Alliance besides Lami’s committee.

Tens of thousands of Baath party members, many of them Sunnis, were fired from government and military jobs after the invasion of Iraq.

U.S. officials say more than 45,000 former Baathist members of Saddam’s military have been granted pensions, allowed to return to active service or given other employment in the Iraqi government.

The draft law would formalise the easing of such curbs and is also expected to address the issue of pensions for former senior members of Saddam’s government.

Washington has pushed Maliki’s government to reach out to disaffected Sunni Arabs, who formed the backbone of the insurgency in Iraq that raged after the invasion, by amending the previous law on de-Baathification.

Many former Baathists had said their party membership was out of necessity, not political conviction.

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