Row mars Iraq parliament hearing on Baathists bill

A bill that would ease curbs on former Baathists was presented to Iraq’s parliament on Sunday, but a row quickly erupted and forced postponement of debate on a draft law seen as vital to fostering national reconciliation.It was the first time parliament had taken up any major bills this year that Washington believes will help heal the deep divide between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs.

Objections to the bill from a key Shi’ite faction and arguments over whether it had been submitted properly prevented the draft law from being read out fully, participants at the closed-door session told Reuters.

The row underscores the discord over a law that would formally relax restrictions on former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party joining the civil service and military.

Many Baath party members were Sunni Arabs who feel persecuted by successive Iraqi administrations since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam.

“The presentation has been stopped and postponed,” said independent Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman.

“We want national reconciliation, we want to forget the past … But the law should have been presented properly so those objecting could not find a hole in the presentation.”

Othman said the draft had not been given to parliament’s legal committee before being read out, although the Shi’ite-led government has said all necessary requirements were met. 

Ezzat Shahbandar, from a parliamentary committee dealing with the issue, said the law had been sent back to the legislature’s legal body for changes. He said this meant the government might want to review any fresh amendments to a bill that some officials say has already been revised four times.

“This means it will take a long time,” Shahbandar said.

Washington has urged Iraq’s leaders all year to pass several key pieces of legislation but there has been little progress due to political infighting among various factions.

Besides the bill on Baathists, other draft laws would equitably divide up Iraq’s vast oil reserves among the country’s different sects and set a date for provincial elections

Participants at the hearing said the faction loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had called the draft on former Baathists unconstitutional, saying it was too soft.

VIOLENCE

Tens of thousands of Baath party members were fired from government and military jobs after Saddam, who persecuted Iraq’s Shi’ite community, was ousted in 2003.

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

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

Cabinet approved changes to the draft law earlier this month. That came after Iraq’s top five Shi’ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders agreed at an August 26 meeting to push ahead with the draft legislation.

In new violence, a suicide car bomb killed nine people and wounded 30 near the Health Ministry in central Baghdad, security spokesman Brigadier-General Qassim Moussawi said.

The bombing was the latest in Baghdad after a relative lull in violence that has seen attacks across Iraq fall by 55 percent since 30,000 extra U.S. troops became fully deployed in mid-June as part of a crackdown to avert sectarian civil law.

Also in Baghdad, a roadside bomb wounded two people in the Waziriya district, police said. A second roadside bomb exploded when Iraqi security forces arrived on the scene, killing one soldier and wounding six others.

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