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BAGHDAD - Iraq's Parliament passed a benchmark law Saturday allowing lower-ranking former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to reclaim government jobs, the first major piece of U.S.-backed legislation it has adopted.
Traveling in Manama, Bahrain, President Bush hailed the law as "an important step toward reconciliation."
"It's an important sign that the leaders of that country understand that they must work together to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people," he said.
The seismic piece of legislation, titled the Accountability and Justice law, had been demanded by the United States since November 2006 and represented the first legislative payoff for Bush's decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops to the country to quell violence.
Other benchmarks proposed by the United States languish, including legislation to divvy up the country's vast oil wealth, constitutional amendments demanded by the Sunni Arabs and a bill spelling out rules for local elections.
Baath membership was estimated at between 2-million and 6-million before L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, in its first official act, order No. 1 of May 16, 2003,banned many senior bureaucrats after 35 years of Baath party rule, effectively stripping key government ministries, the military and top economic institutions of centuries of cumulative experience.
The order was also blamed for fueling the Sunni-dominated insurgency that took root in the late summer of 2003.
Ali al-Lami, a senior official who has worked on the new legislation, said 3,500 former high-ranking Baathists would be offered retirement and pensions. He said 13,000 lower-ranking Baathists would be offered reinstatement. Also, 7,000 people now holding government jobs but who had been members of Hussein's security service would be retired and given pensions.
Iraq's military already had worked through the Baath party problem, with those who had served above the rank of major in Hussein's time automatically retired and put on pension.
The Bush administration initially had promoted de-Baathification as a worthy and necessary goal, but later said Iraqi authorities went beyond what the Americans had contemplated to keep Hussein's supporters out of important jobs.
Oil output rises
Iraq's average oil output rose again in December, marking a roughly 30 percent increase since the start of 2007, the country's oil ministry said Saturday. The average output last month reached 2.475-million barrels per day, according to figures released by the State Oil Marketing Company. In January 2007, output was 1.9-million barrels. Its prewar production was 2.58-million barrels per day. Iraq is the holder of the world's third-largest crude oil reserves with an estimated 115-billion barrels.
[Last modified January 13, 2008, 01:10:12]