Iraq's presidency council on Sunday issued a controversial law that allows lower-ranking former Baath party members to reclaim government jobs, the final step for the first U.S.-backed benchmark approved by parliament.
The measure was thought to affect about 38,000 former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling political apparatus, giving them a chance to go back to government jobs. It would also allow those who have reached retirement age to claim government pensions.
It became law without the signature of the Sunni representative on the three-member presidency council because the constitution requires the body to act within 10 days after the panel received the law, according to Iraq's constitution.
Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi objected to provisions in the law that would have pensioned off 7,000 members of Saddam's former secret police and intelligence agents who still worked in Iraq's security apparatus.
The law is the first of 18 pieces of benchmark legislation demanded by the Bush administration to promote reconciliation among Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arab communities and the large Kurdish minority.
Other draft legislation, including measures to divvy up the country's vast oil wealth, amend the constitution and define rules for new provincial elections.
The so-called de-Baathification law was passed by the 275-member parliament on Jan. 12. The presidency council announced it had issued the legislation in a statement on Sunday.
In Other Developments: The U.S. military announced Sunday that an American soldier had died a day earlier of non-combat related causes in Ninevah province. At least 3,944 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. A senior Interior Ministry official and his bodyguard were wounded and his driver was killed Sunday by a bomb planted on his car, police said. Lt. Col. Mohammed Ibrahim, director of Iraq's police commandos, an elite special forces group, was heading to work when the bomb exploded around 10 a.m. in the Mansour neighborhood, an officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. Ibrahim and his bodyguard both survived but his driver was killed, the officer said. A mortar round slammed into a street in a northeastern section of the capital, killing an Iraqi soldier on foot patrol, another police officer said. The attack occurred at 9 a.m. Sunday in the Sulaikh area, police said. Three civilians and another soldier were also wounded in the attack, an officer said on the same anonymity condition. South of Baghdad, an Iraqi policeman was killed in a drive-by shooting Sunday near Kut, 100 miles southeast of the capital, police said. In Mosul - Iraq's third-largest city 225 miles northwest of Baghdad - a roadside bomb targeting a U.S. military vehicle wounded two Iraqi civilians, U.S. and Iraqi officials said. No U.S. troops were injured, and the incident was under investigation, said Lt. Michael Street, a U.S. military spokesman. The U.S. military on Sunday blamed al Qaeda in Iraq for weekend pet market bombings that killed nearly 100 Iraqis, saying the attacks showed the terror group's "desperation" and "broken ideology." Twin bombings 20 minutes apart killed at least 99 people Friday in Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi officials say two mentally retarded women were strapped with explosives that were detonated by remote control - suggesting the women were used as unwitting suicide attackers. "We condemn al Qaeda in Iraq, who is responsible for these attacks," Rear Adm. Gregory Smith told reporters Sunday in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone. In Rome on Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI condemned recent violence in Iraq. "Wickedness, with its burden of sorrow, seems to know no limits in Iraq, as the very sad news of these days tell us," the pope told pilgrims in St. Peter's Square. He did not cite any specific attack, but could have been reacting to Friday's pet market bombings in Baghdad, which killed nearly 100 people. Benedict said he was raising his voice on behalf of the Iraqi population and "invoking God's peace for them." Four Iraqis working with a U.S.-backed neighborhood watch group were shot dead in their safe house northeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Sunday. American soldiers found the bodies of the men - aged 17, 18, 20 and 21 - in southwest Baqouba, the volatile capital of Iraq's Diyala province, said Sgt. Sam Smith, a U.S. military spokesman. He did not identify the men. There were no signs of torture or forced entry into the house, he said.
Such neighborhood watch groups - also known as Awakening Councils, Concerned Local Citizens or the Sons of Iraq - are local men recruited by U.S. officers to help provide security and rebuild Iraqi towns. They are comprised mostly of Sunni fighters - some of whom once fought against U.S. and Iraqi forces - who have now joined the Americans in trying to oust al Qaeda from their own enclaves.
The groups, believed to be more than 70,000-strong across the country, have been credited by U.S. commanders as being instrumental in what they say is a nearly 60 percent reduction in violence in the last six months. It also was affected by the dispatch of additional U.S. troops and a six-month cease-fire declared in August by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has been deeply uneasy about the potential for the Sunni fighters - now better organized and armed - to switch sides again, posing a threat to stability and the Shiite domination that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.