BAGHDAD (AFP) -Iraq on Tuesday prepared to debate a new bill designed to woo back members of the outlawed Baath party into mainstream politics and government jobs in a reconciliation bid to quell rampant conflict.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani said Monday that they had sent the draft Accountability and Reconciliation Law, pushed for by outgoing US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, to cabinet and parliament for approval.
The bill would reform deeply controversial legislation that saw tens of thousands of army and government officials sacked after the US-led invasion by offering jobs to all but the highest ranking former regime officials.
The original de-Baathification law and the disbanding of former president Saddam Hussein’s sprawling military has been widely labelled a key American policy mistake that fuelled the deadly Sunni-led insurgency.
Wooing former Baathists, a large part of the educated and professional elite under Saddam, back into fractious mainstream politics and the civil service is seen as key to promote national reconciliation and appease ongoing violence.
Yet while Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers, who dominate the 275-member parliament, largely welcomed the draft legislation, Sunni Arab officials cast doubt on whether the legislation would have a practical affect.
Neither was it clear when the cabinet would actually begin debating the bill, which needs ministerial approval before being passed onto parliament for final blessing before passing into the statute books.
Sami al-Askari, a leading MP close to Maliki, told AFP the bill would be reviewed in upcoming cabinet meetings, but declined to say when. The cabinet usually meets once a week, frequently on Thursdays.
The bill offers immunity to former Baathists after a six-month challenge period during which any Iraqi can file a lawsuit against any Baathist or former security officer they suspect of past crimes.
After that, all Baathists would be immune from prosecution over their actions under the former regime. Pensions for Baathists and their families, would also be confirmed, regardless of an official’s rank.
The bill was announced as Arab ministers meeting ahead of an Arab summit in Riyadh agreed to call for an amendment of Iraq’s constitution to give Sunnis a greater share of power to prevent the country from breaking up.
But Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari was adamant on Tuesday that Baghdad did not need an Arab “diktat” on how to boost reconciliation, saying his government was determined to amend its constitution.
“Amendment of the constitution is an obligation written in the text of the constitution, and we are determined to do it without waiting to be told,” he told AFP in Riyadh.
Khalilzad said the bill would give those who have been de-Baathified “the opportunity to return to their jobs, provided they were not at the highest levels of the former regime and have not been involved in criminal activity.”
It was one of his indirect predecessors, former US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, who in 2003 outlawed the Baath party and sacked tens of thousands of its members.
It became a major source of grievance for Iraq’s minority Sunnis, who have since fought relentlessly against US troops and the Shiite-led, US-backed government that severed their decades-long grip on power.
Shiite lawmakers welcomed the bill, hailing it as an opportunity to divorce the majority of Sunni Baathists from violence and draw them back into the mainstream.
“There is no doubt it will help reduce the cycle of violence in the country if the Baathists returned to their administrative and social posts,” Hassan al-Sinaide, an MP in Maliki’s Dawa Party, told AFP.
But Sunni lawmakers remained sceptical, doubting that former Baathists would return in the current climate of Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence.
“I doubt they (the Baathists) will return,” said Dhafer al-Ani, a prominent lawmaker from the National Concord Front, the main Sunni bloc in parliament.
“There is a programme by some political parties and militias to finish them (Baathists) up. So the law is not effective in practice.”
But Kurdish MP Mahmud Othman said the bill is an attempt to make use of the vast pool of talent among former regime officials.
“The present regime wants to benefit from them. Iraq currently is not run in a good way … From the start the present regime should have benefited from the people of old regime.”
Khalilzad, a Sunni Muslim, also welcomed the new bill as a “significant step in the right direction” towards national reconciliation.