BAGHDAD (AFP) — A long-awaited bill to allow members of Saddam Hussein's Sunni Baath party to return to public life in Iraq was tabled in parliament on Sunday but immediately rejected by jeering hardline Shiites.
Washington regards the bill as vital to stuttering reconciliation efforts in Iraq and it has made its adoption one of 18 benchmarks by which the progress of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government can be measured.
The first reading of the Justice and Accountability Law, which has been stalled in the deeply-divided parliament for months, was greeted with heckles by lawmakers of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's political bloc.
"No! No, to Baathists," the Sadrists shouted, noisily banging their desks and prompting parliamentary speaker Mahmud Mashhadani to order the session to continue behind closed doors.
"The draft violates the Iraqi constitution," Falah Hasan Shanshal, a Sadr group lawmaker, told the parliament, according to a statement issued by the assembly.
His colleague, Baha'a al-Araji said the Sadr bloc had several reservations regarding the bill.
"What we want from the new law is to preserve the rights of all those who have been abused (by the former regime)," the statement quoted him as saying.
Prior to the start of the first reading, it was announced that the bill would be read for a second time on Wednesday and would then be put to the vote.
However, due to the ruckus in parliament, it was not immediately certain if the second reading would take place on schedule.
The bill aims to make a distinction between two categories of Baath party officials who have been barred from state employment since the US-led invasion of 2003 to topple Saddam.
Only senior party leaders who implemented the oppressive policies of the regime would remain subject to the ban. Middle-ranking officials not implicated in any crimes would be able to resume government jobs.
Tens of thousands of Baath officials were dismissed from state institutions after Saddam was ousted, leaving schools and government offices struggling for expertise and providing fertile ground for the anti-US insurgency.
The bill had been pending before parliament since March. Shiite MPs, especially the Sadrists, say it is dangerous to allow former members of Saddam's regime to leadership positions.
They say the bill should ensure that the former Baathists who return to public life be banned from reaching high-ranking positions later. "This is not mentioned in the draft," Shanshal told AFP.
Another bill, which opens up the long state-dominated oil and gas sector to foreign investment and provides assurances that receipts will be shared equally between Iraq's 18 provinces, is also stalled before parliament.
It too is regarded by Washington as a key yardstick of efforts to reconcile Iraq's divided communities.
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