BAGHDAD (AFP) — In a major boost for reconciliation in deeply divided Iraq, Shiite and Sunni MPs unanimously passed a law on Saturday allowing ex-officials of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to return to public life.
The vote was swiftly welcomed by Washington which has long been calling for passage of a bill that it regards as a key measure of reconciliation in Iraq.
The Justice and Accountability Law was passed unanimously by the 143 members of parliament present in the 275-member house after months of obstruction by hardline Shiites who had been demanding that the bill also include measures to compensate victims of Saddam's regime.
US President George W. Bush, who earlier in the day received a briefing from top US officials in Iraq in neighbouring Kuwait, hailed an "important step toward reconciliation".
"It's an important sign that the leaders in that country must work together to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people," he said in Bahrain on the next stop on a Middle East tour.
Bush said Iraqi politicians still needed to make more progress on the other 17 benchmarks that Washington has set for gauging political reconciliation efforts but that the passing of the de-Baathification law was grounds for hope.
"They got a lot more work to do, but they're passing law," he said.
"And so I'm optimistic they'll get laws passed here pretty quick, and we'll continue to press to make it happen."
The new law will allow thousands of middle-ranking Baath party members to apply for reinstatement to their jobs in the civil service and military, provided they were not convicted of crimes.
A smaller group of more senior members will not be allowed back into public life but, if they have no criminal records, will be retired on pension.
Tens of thousands of Baath officials were dismissed from state institutions after Saddam was ousted in 2003, leaving schools and government offices struggling for expertise and providing fertile ground for the anti-US insurgency.
The new law includes a clause that allows victims of Baath regime to apply to special tribunals for monetary compensation and stresses that members of Saddam's security services and those involved in crimes will be punished.
It also sets up an Accountability and Justice Board which will be tasked with ensuring that the ideology, practices and power of the Baath party will not be allowed to return to the country.
Fallah Hassan Shanshal, MP for Sadr City and head of parliament's de-Baathification committee, said the law would now be sent to the three-member presidential council for final approval.
"The law was passed to make sure those who committed crimes against the Iraqi people be held accountable," Shanshal told AFP.
"At the same time, it will give higher-ranked party members who have not committed any crimes the right of retirement. The lower-ranked members can return to their normal life."
The bill had been pending since March.
Shiite MPs, especially those loyal to firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, had been reluctant to approve the bill, saying it is dangerous to allow former members of Saddam's regime to hold positions of leadership.
Hardline Baathists, however, remain suspicious of the new law, saying they prefer to remain in the shadows.
"Baathists will not welcome this law because any citizen that has any kind of hatred will file a case against a Baathist and make a fake case that will send him to prison," said Mohammed Sabih, a former teacher who lost his job.
"This is like pouring fuel on the fire," Sabih told AFP by telephone from the Baghdad Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiyah soon after the law was approved.
Abu Wahid, who lost his job as a civil servant because he was a Baath party member, said Baathists should be fully re-integrated into political life.
"I am not convinced by this regime. Will they allow Baathists to engage in political activities and participate in elections? The answer is no," he said.
The new law replaces the de-Baathification law introduced by Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq after the March 2003 invasion, which purged the civil service and army of Saddam's supporters.
His action turned thousands of Baathists, especially members of the armed forces, against the US military. Civilian employees also nurtured grievances, with many supporting the insurgency.
The Baath party, founded in Damascus in 1947, took power in Iraq in 1968. Baath, meaning "resurrection," officially promotes pan-Arab nationalism and socialism.
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