Iraq Eases Political Restrictions on Baath Party Members

Iraq's parliament passes a long-awaited measure to ease restrictions on members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party. The Bush administration has pushed Iraq's Shiite-led government to pass the de-Baathficiation in an effort to bring more Sunnis into the political process.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

After almost a year, Iraq's parliament has finally a measure to ease restrictions on members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

The U.S. government had pushed Iraq's Shiite-led government to pass the law in an effort to bring more Sunnis into the political process and ease sectarian tensions.

NPR's Anne Garrels joins us from Baghdad. Anne, thanks for being with us.

ANNE GARRELS: I'm delighted, Scott.

SIMON: And why is this seen as such a benchmark?

GARRELS: Well, basically, Sunnis who were the majority of the Baath Party felt they've been collectively punished under the de-Baathification decree that had been passed during the early days of the U.S. occupation. The U.S. initially promoted de-Baathification, but later claimed it had gone way further than ever anticipated, fueling sectarian tensions.

The initial decree gutted ministries of key technocrats and bureaucrats who were needed to help rebuild the country.

The government spokesman, today, said he hopes the new law will provide a balance, preserving the rights of the Iraqi people while also benefiting innocent members of the Baath Party. And the U.S. Embassy immediately applauded passage of this long-awaited bill.

SIMON: How do the provisions in this bill differ from the early de-Baathification decree that you mentioned that was passed under Paul Bremmer?

GARRELS: Well, it still bans the most senior Baath Party members, those who are in the four top ranks from government work. But unlike the previous law, they will now be allowed to claim a state pension. That means money.

Those who are going to benefit the most though are thousands of junior Baathists who had been in the fifth rank of the party. And, you know, this include bureaucrats, teachers, tens of thousands of people. Those who didn't commit crimes are no longer banned from government service. They'll be permitted to return to their jobs or an equivalent position.

SIMON: But what about people who were in the security services?

GARRELS: The repressive security services, i.e. the intelligence services, the Muhabarrat - you know, they are - they're not going to get a pension and they can't come back to work.

SIMON: How big was support for opposition to the law and parliament?

GARRELS: Well, the bill was passed by a unanimous show of hands, but that's only sort of part of the story. Out of 275 members of parliament, only 150 showed up, and that's barely a quorum. So it's hard to say it had unanimous support. A small group of Sunnis did walk out, saying the law is too vague and it's going to open the way, yet again, for a revenge.

Some Shiites, on the other hand, say it's too lenient on Baathists, but they still voted for it.

SIMON: And Anne, what do you project right now will be the result, let's say, over the next month or a year from now?

GARRELS: Well, it really depends on how the new commission and judiciary respond to charges against former Baathists, and how fair the new law is seen. The old commission was widely criticized as being capricious.

The new law certainly allows thousands of former Baath party members to get their jobs back. Will they get them back? That's a big question. And it does give the prime minister the option of hiring any former Baathist he wants if he gets permission from the three-man presidential council. But this is just one benchmark law and by no means probably the most important.

There are more laws to be passed on oil, on elections, on regulating the relationship between the center and the provinces. And there's been no real movement on any of those.

SIMON: NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad. Thanks very much.

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