Iraq’s cabinet unveiled sweeping reforms to a law barring members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party from public life on Sunday as part of moves to placate angry rallies by the country’s Sunni Arab minority.
The amendment to the De-Baathification law still needs to be approved by parliament, where it is expected to face stiff opposition, but it is among a raft of concessions to demonstrators who have alleged that the Shiite-led authorities unfairly target the Sunni community.
The protests since December lie at the heart of a political dispute that has pitted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is Shiite, against several of his erstwhile national unity government partners with less than two weeks to go before provincial elections, Iraq’s first polls since 2010.
“This law (of De-Baathification) has excluded many talented people and prevented the country from (benefiting from) their services,” Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak said in a statement summarising the reforms.
Ministers approved a draft amendment that would allow Baath party branch chiefs, or firqa-level members, to rejoin the civil service, and would provide for pension payments for many members of the Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary organisation loyal to the ousted dictator.
It would also put a time limit on the law, ensuring that only names blacklisted by the end of 2013 would be restricted from public life.
In all, the draft law would allow thousands of people to either enter the civil service or receive pensions.
“If you want to create a state, you need reconciliation,” said Mahmud Othman, an independent Kurdish MP opposed to the current De-Baathification laws which, he said, were “punishing the people” with links to Saddam’s regime.
“Maybe the few people who have committed crimes, you take them to court. The rest, you should open the door to them.”
But, Othman said, the law would likely face strong opposition in parliament from Shiite Muslim lawmakers whose constituencies in south Iraq were among those that suffered most under Saddam’s rule.
“They (the amendments) could be proposed, but passing them in the form that they have been proposed will not be easy,” he said.
Ministers also approved amendments to laws on the use of secret informants and the seizure of property, both of which are major frustrations to the Sunni Arab community.
Critics have said the existing De-Baathification rules are too broad-reaching, disproportionately target Sunni Arabs, who were largely in power during Saddam’s rule, and could theoretically be applied in perpetuity.
In particular, Sunni Arab protesters have railed against the law during months of protests that have also alleged that anti-terror legislation is used to target their minority.
“This is a step towards moving to a new phase, away from phobia of the Baath party,” said Ihsan al-Shammari, a politics professor at Baghdad University. “I think the government made a good move here.”
But, Shammari said, the proposal was likely to face opposition in the Shiite-dominated south, where he said opinions towards the draft amendments would be strongly negative.