BAGHDAD – Iraq's presidency council issued a law Sunday that will allow thousands of Saddam Hussein-era officials to return to government jobs, legislation viewed by the Bush administration as central to mending deep fissures between minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds and the majority Shiites who now wield power.
The measure was the first of 18 key U.S.-set benchmarks to become law after months of bitter debate. But it was issued without the signature of the Sunni vice president, and the presidency council cited reservations and plans to seek changes in the bill, clouding hopes it would encourage reconciliation.
It was uncertain how many former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling political apparatus would be affected by the new law, with estimates ranging from 23,500 to 38,000.
Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi objected to provisions in the law that would have pensioned off 7,000 low-level members of Saddam's former secret police and intelligence agents who still worked in Iraq's security apparatus.
Top al-Hashemi aides also said he wanted decisions on exceptions to the law to be handled by the presidency council rather than parliament as the law currently requires.
The presidency council, which also includes President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, issued the law 10 days after receiving it for consideration, as required by Iraq's constitution.
But in an apparent face-saving gesture to al-Hashemi, Talabani and Abdul-Mahdi promised they would agree to send amendments back to the 275-member parliament.
"This law allows thousands of Iraqis purged by the de-Baathfication law to return to their jobs, with the exclusion of the bad elements and those whose crimes were proven," the council said in a statement after issuing the law.
The presidential council also expressed concern "over some items that would hamper the national reconciliation project," pointing to the measure that would "lead to the exclusion of employees with high qualifications of which Iraqi is in dire need."
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.
It will allow thousands of former members of Saddam's ruling Baath party to return to government jobs, and those who have reached retirement age will be able to claim government pensions.
Legislators also stressed the law would protect people in the future from atrocities like those committed by Saddam Hussein and to ensure those who were damaged by his Sunni-dominated regime had a means of seeking compensation.
The law included an explanation that it was passed "due to the severe suffering of the Iraqi people for 35 years during which they were subjected to the ugliest forms of repression, oppression and deprivation at the hands of the most criminal of regimes."
U.S. officials have pinned great hopes on the measure and its passage by parliament was welcomed with fanfare by President George W. Bush as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's U.S.-backed government has been heavily criticized for failing to take advantage of a recent lull in violence to make progress on the political front.
Other draft legislation, including measures to divvy up the country's vast oil wealth, amend the constitution and define rules for new provincial elections, remains stalled.
But many Sunnis in Iraq were skeptical.
Abu Wisam, 51, a former employee in the Ministry of Higher Education who said he was sacked in late 2005, noted the law's continued emphasis on punishing past regime members found guilty of crimes.
"This law brings nothing new. It still chases Baathists because of past events. The government should be busy fighting current criminals and corruption instead of settling old scores with us," said Wisam, who currently owns a computer store in Baghdad's predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Amariyah.
"I am not willing to go back to my work because I fear assassination," he added. "Government institutions are controlled by anti-Baathist people. I do not expect good from a law that was written and will be implemented by anti-Baathists."
An official in al-Hashemi's office, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the Sunni leader would work to expedite the amendments because he believes "that some items in this law create obstacles on the march toward national reconciliation and they exclude employees whose expertise is vital to the Iraqi state."
Still, the move was seen as a key step in the reconciliation process. The decision to outlaw the Baath party was the first official act of L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, and along with his order to disband the Iraqi army has been widely blamed for setting in motion the Sunni insurgency in the fall of 2003.
Miranda Sissons of the International Center for Transitional Justice said the law was an improvement over early drafts but raised concerns over its implementation, questioning whether the members of the security ministries will be immediately dismissed or whether the move would be delayed.
"It's not going to make the fundamental grievances go away, you've still got a system that is largely based on guilt by association," she said.
Estimates varied on the number of people who would be affected.
The New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice said a common number was 38,000, while noting the actual number of returns would be lower because reinstatements have been occurring since late 2006.
Ali al-Lami, a senior official who has worked on the legislation, has said 3,500 former high-ranking Baathists would be offered retirement and pensions in addition to the 7,000 now holding government jobs but who had been members of Saddam's security service. He said 13,000 lower-ranking Baathists would be offered reinstatement.
The measure also sets up a seven-judge appeals panel for those who have been dismissed in the de-Baathification process and strikes an old clause that forced them to surrender pensions automatically if they appeal previous dismissal.
The strict implementation of so-called de-Baathification rules meant that many senior bureaucrats who knew how to run ministries, university departments and state companies were fired after 35 years of Baath party rule.
Iraq's military already had worked through the Baath Party problem, declaring that anyone who had served above the rank of major in Saddam's time would be automatically retired and put on pension. Those who held the rank of major or below were allowed to return to the military if qualified