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, which was passed by parliament on Jan. 12, 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.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, said a soldier had been killed Thursday in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Baghdad, raising to at least 40 the number of troop deaths reported in January, nearly double the 23 recorded in December and the largest monthly toll for the Americans since 65 in September.
A U.S. soldier also died of non-combat causes in Ninevah province in northern Iraq, the military said Sunday. At least 3,945 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi objected to provisions in the new law that would pension off 7,000 low-level members of Saddam Hussein'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 presidential 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 the panel also expressed concern "over some items that would hamper the national reconciliation project," pointing to the clause that would "lead to the exclusion of employees with high qualifications of which Iraqi is in dire need."
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.
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.
U.S. officials have pinned great hopes on the measure and its passage by parliament was welcomed with fanfare by President 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.
"As security has improved, it's good to see the Iraqis move forward with political reconciliation," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council. "We expect to see more legislative progress in the near term."
Other draft legislation, including measures to divvy up the country's vast oil wealth and amend the constitution and define rules for new provincial elections remain in limbo.
The new law 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.
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 the 2003 U.S.-led ouster of Saddam.
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."
Many Sunnis in Iraq were skeptical.
Abu Wisam, 51, a former employee in the Ministry of Higher Education who was sacked in late 2005, complained the law continued to emphasize 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."
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 worked on the legislation, said 13,000 lower-ranking Baathists would be offered reinstatement while 3,500 former high-ranking Baathists would be offered retirement and pensions in addition to the 7,000 Saddam-era security agents now holding government jobs.
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.
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.