BAGHDAD - Iraq's parliament voted Saturday to allow former members of the Sunni-dominated Baath party back into government jobs and pensions, a move that could speed reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
The measure is the first big U.S.-promoted benchmark for Iraq's progress to make it through the country's fractious and often timid 275-member parliament. Other key legislative benchmarks, such as divvying up Iraq's oil wealth, have long awaited their action.
If approved as expected by the three-member presidential council, the new Justice and Accountability law will replace a 2003 de-Baathification decree that banned members of Saddam Hussein's party from serving in the new Iraqi government. Sunnis, who dominated Saddam's government, have long complained the old rule amounted to a form of sectarian punishment against them.
"We consider this law as a correction of previously made mistakes," said Saleem Abdullah, a member of the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front.
The new law, which passed unanimously by shows of hands, allows a seven-member committee to determine which lower-level Baath Party members can be reinstated and which senior-level Baathists are eligible for pensions.
Families of Baathists convicted of crimes also will be eligible for pensions, said Tanya Gilly, a Kurdish lawmaker. No former Baathists can return to the finance or foreign affairs ministries, however, and members of Saddam's Fedayeen security force won't receive pensions or jobs.
"It's a more humane law," than the 2003 declaration by the Coalition Provisional Authority under L. Paul Bremer, Gilly said.
Independent Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman estimated 3,000 of the 30,000 to 35,000 people banned under the original law will still be barred from civil service. The challenge now is trust, he added.
"It isn't easy to bring them back," Othman said.
Baathists may not be willing to confess their former affiliations or crimes in exchange for a pension or job from the Shiite-led government, he explained.
"I doubt there is going to be much trust in the beginning for those people to come back," Gilly said. "We still lack many mechanisms to reintegrate them."
Despite the apparent unanimity of support, the measure actually squeaked through in a session that barely made quorum. The Iraqi Accordance Front was split; the party withdrew from the government in 2007 with a list of demands that included easing restrictions on Baath Party members. Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashemi's Iraqi Islamic Party voted, but two other parties walked out in protest. Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr banged their desks and walked out when the bill was introduced in December, but remained in their seats on Saturday.
"(The law) may help bring back the Islamic Party (the largest Sunni political party) to the government and pave the road for reconciliation," Othman said.
But some members said the new law doesn't go far enough to help reconciliation and that former Baath Party members won't support a law that doesn't acknowledge their political views.
Saleh al Mutlaq, head of Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, said the government should end de-Baathification and deal with wrongdoers through the court system, regardless of party.
"Justice should be for everybody, accountability should be for everybody," he said. "You can not make the accountability only for Baathists."
Mutlaq said legislators who passed the law are more interested in appeasing U.S. officials using the law as a benchmark for political progress than reconciliation among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
"They want to give the impression they're working on reconciliation," Mutlaq said. "They're bluffing themselves and the Americans by telling others they've done something."
Hours before parliament passed the bill, President George W. Bush said he saw signs of political progress, but wanted more. Bush met Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Kuwait on Saturday.
"I'm not making excuses for a government, but to go from a tyranny to a democracy is virtually impossible," Bush said. "Have they done enough? No. Our message is very clear. It's in your interest that you pass good laws."
Crocker noted during a press briefing in Kuwait that new laws are vital, but reconciliation must occur outside parliament.
"Reconciliation is more than national legislation," he said. "It's also what we're seeing in the provinces and around the country. There is more political activity; there is more cross-sectarian political activity."
Fadel reported from Kuwait. Gumbrecht, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, reported from Baghdad.