Iraq's parliament adopted legislation Saturday on the reinstatement of thousands of former supporters of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to government jobs, a key benchmark sought by the United States as a step toward easing sectarian tensions.
The bill was approved by a unanimous show of hands on each of the law's 30 clauses. Titled the Accountability and Justice law, it seeks to relax restrictions on the rights of members of the now-dissolved Baath party to fill government posts.
It is also designed to reinstate thousands of Baathists dismissed from government jobs after the 2003 U.S. invasion - a decision that deepened sectarian tensions between Iraq's majority Shiites and the once-dominant Sunni Arabs, who believed the firings targeted their community.
The strict implementation of so-called de-Baathification rules also meant that many senior bureaucrats who knew how to run ministries, university departments and state companies ended up unemployed in a country where 35 years of Baath party rule and extensive government involvement in the economy had left tens of thousands of party members in key positions.
That, coupled with the disbanding of the Iraqi army, threw tens of thousands of people out of work at a critical time in Iraq's history and fueled the burgeoning Sunni insurgency.
The Bush administration initially promoted de-Baathification but later claimed that Iraqi authorities went beyond even what the Americans had contemplated to keep Saddam's supporters out of important jobs.
With the Sunni insurgency raging and political leaders making little progress in reconciling Iraq's Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities, the Americans switched positions and urged the dismantling of de-Baathification laws.
Later, enacting and implementing legislation reinstating the fired Baath supporters became one of 18 so-called benchmark issues the U.S. sought as measures for progress in national reconciliation.
The legislation can become law only when approved by Iraq's presidential council. The council, comprised of Iraq's president and two vice presidents, is expected to ratify the measure.
The draft law approved Saturday is not a blanket approval for all former Baathists to take government jobs.
The law will allow low-ranking Baathists not involved in past crimes against Iraqis to go back to their jobs. High-ranking Baathists will be sent to compulsory retirement and those involved in crimes will stand trial, though their families will still have the right to pension.
The Baathists who were members in Saddam's security agencies must retire - except for members of Fidayeen Saddam, a feared militia formed by Saddam's eldest son, Oday. They will be entitled to nothing.
U.S. Military Seeks To Reclaim Insurgent Areas
A U.S.-led military offensive, meanwhile, sought to reclaim control of former insurgent-held areas around Baghdad.
In the massive raid south of the capital, two B1-B bombers and four F-16 fighter jets dropped 48 precision-guided bombs on 47 targets, U.S. Air Force Col. Peter Donnelly, commander of the 18th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Group, told reporters.
The targets consisted mainly of weapons caches and powerful roadside bombs buried deep underground - key defensive elements for al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents, said Donnelly and Army Col. Terry Ferrell, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.
Extremists were believed to have controlled Arab Jabour, a Sunni district lined with citrus groves, but Ferrell said "the predominant number" have now fled to the southwest since his troops' operations began.
"We're moving into areas where coalition forces have not been in months or years in some cases," Ferrell told reporters via a video link, adding that insurgents "had established a deliberate defensive belt to deny our movement in the area."
Ferrell said the southwest is "where we take this fight to next. It is all about fighting the enemy where the enemy wants to go."
As U.S. and Iraqi ground forces move through areas to push out insurgents, Ferrell said members of the Awakening Council movement will be relied upon to stabilize the region and maintain security.
It was those Sunni fighters, Ferrell said, who largely provided the intelligence that allowed U.S. forces to locate the targets destroyed in Thursday's bombing.
Despite the massive size of the air strikes, Donnelly said that - to the military's knowledge - no civilians were killed. That could not immediately be independently confirmed. He added that the targeting of three targets was called off because unmanned surveillance planes showed civilians in those areas.
Donnelly said it wasn't yet known how many insurgents were killed in the attacks.
But Mustapha Kamil Shibeeb al-Jibouri, leader of Arab Jabour's Awakening Council, said the air strikes killed at least 21 al Qaeda militants including a group leader.
"Their bodies are still in the area. They have not been evacuated yet," he told The Associated Press.
Separately, the military announced that Faleh Mansour Hussain, the Sunni chairman of the Yarmouk Neighborhood Council in Baghdad, was killed in a car bombing Tuesday.
"Attacks on civilians like this are done by those who are trying to prevent the peace and stability Iraqi citizens deserve," said military spokesman Maj. J. Frank Garcia.
By Qassim Abdul-Zahra
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