Shiites Balk At Iraq Reconciliation Bill

Followers of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr march during a rally at Baghdad's Amil neighborhood, Iraq, Monday, Nov. 26, 2007. Legislators loyal to al-Sadr are blocking a draft bill in Iraq's parliament aimed at relaxing a ban keeping thousands of former low-ranking members of Saddam's Baath party from regaining their posts. AP Photo/Fadhil Maliki

Shiite legislators on Monday denounced a draft bill to ease curbs on ex-Saddam Hussein loyalists in government services, dampening hopes of progress for the U.S.-backed legislation aimed at promoting national reconciliation.

Debate over rehabilitating former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party has been a major obstacle to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. Al-Maliki has struggled to bring minority Sunnis into the political process and stem support for the insurgency.

Parliament began debate on the latest version of the measure on Sunday. But the session adjourned after lawmakers loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began pounding their fists on their tables in protest.

Many Shiites suffered terribly under Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.

"The justice system has to have its say in this. There are Baathists who committed crimes and atrocities against the Iraqi people and those must be tried," Bahaa al-Araji, a lawmaker from al-Sadr's 30-member bloc, said Monday at a news conference.

He said the legislators understood many members were forced to join the Baath Party but said the legislation did not sufficiently distinguish those who willingly participated in suppression of majority Shiites.

"We have (to) first compensate the families of those who were killed and imprisoned by those and then discuss the law," he said.

The prospect of rehabilitating former Baathists did not sit well with Shiite lawmakers from other political parties either.

"This draft amounts to an unannounced general pardon by the government," said Safiya al-Suhail, a female Shiite lawmaker whose father was assassinated by Saddam's agents in Beirut in the 1990s.

"There is no punishment for wrongdoers," she added. "The victims of the former regime should see justice done to them. We will not accept national reconciliation at the expense of justice."

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, said parliament would discuss the draft again on Wednesday.

"I think that the bill is in general a good one," Othman said. "The country is in dire need of national reconciliation... Iraqis should abandon revenge and adopt forgiveness."

The United States has been pressing Iraqis to relax the ban and allow thousands of lower-ranking Baathists to regain their posts, but the legislation has frequently been stalled due to the stark differences between Shiites seeking revenge and those who want to put the past behind them.

Enacting and implementing legislation on so-called de-Baathification is one of 18 benchmark issues that the U.S. has set as measures for progress in Iraq.

Another controversial issue is the need to develop legislation for the equitable sharing of Iraq's oil wealth among the varied ethnic and religious groups.

Kurdish authorities insisted on their right to issue oil drilling and exploration contracts to foreign firms despite objections by the central government.

The Kurds, who enjoy self-rule in their oil-rich northern territory, have signed eight contracts and others are expected soon for operations in the area. But the Oil Ministry said last week that the contracts were invalid and that foreign companies that sign them risk being blacklisted by the Iraqi government.

(AP Photo/Yahya Ahmed)
"I'd like to say frankly that Iraq's Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani cannot nullify any contract the Kurdistan government has concluded with the foreign companies," said Nechirvan Barzani, the semiautonomous region's prime minister, seen at left.

"And the Kurdistan government will continue with concluding contracts within the context of Iraq's constitution. And if there is any problem of such kind, we have a constitutional court, and al-Shahristani can resort to this court," he added.

The Iraqi Cabinet approved a draft bill last February to regulate the country's oil industry and forwarded it to parliament. But parliament, citing legal technicalities, kicked it back to the Cabinet. The measure has been bogged down in negotiations ever since.

Last August, the Kurds enacted their own oil law to regulate the oil sector in the region, further angering the central government in Baghdad. Most of Iraq's oil lies in the Shiite-controlled south and the Kurdish north.

The political paralysis has raised concerns that failure to achieve reconciliation could stanch military progress in quelling the violence, which has continued despite a relative lull.

The Sadrists also are angry over recent raids against followers, primarily in southern Iraq where rival militias have been battling, raising fears that an order by the radical cleric to his Mahdi Army militia to stand down won't hold.

An al-Sadr follower from Diwaniyah, a mainly Shiite city 80 miles south of Baghdad, expressed outrage over a series of recent operations.

"Diwaniyah local authorities are now alleging that everybody belonging to the Sadrists or the Mahdi Army or who perform the Friday prayers are outlaws and should be detained" Ali al-Miali said at the joint news conference.

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