US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a quick trip to Baghdad on Tuesday, during which she told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the US is pleased with a new law to politically rehabilitate members of executed former dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and urged him to move faster on political reconciliation.
"President Bush and Secretary Rice decided this would be a good opportunity for the secretary to go to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi officials to build on progress made and to encourage additional political reconciliation and legislative action," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
The de-Baathification law is one of 18 steps which the United States considered benchmarks to promoting reconciliation among the country's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
A senior aide to al-Maliki said Rice also encouraged the prime minister to promote the progress of the other benchmark legislation, including provincial elections, constitutional amendments and a law to share the country's oil and gas resources among the different sects.
"Iraq is moving forward in a way that is promising but still fragile," Rice told reporters after talks with Iraq's leaders.
"I must say that from the time I was here a month ago I have also seen progress on the political front, particularly in the reconciliation that the Iraqi people themselves are carrying out at the grassroots front," she said.
Steps taken early in the US occupation in Iraq had stripped tens of thousands of members of the Baath Party – most of whom were Sunni Arabs, the community that has driven Iraq's insurgency – of their government jobs. Many analysts said this had fueled anger at the new, Shiite-led political order the US helped install in the country.
The US has now made political reconciliation between Shiite and Sunni a key goal to ultimately ending the war there. But some critics believe the new law, which will allow some Baathists to go back to work, does not go far enough.
Writing in his blog Informed Comment, University of Michigan Middle East historian Juan Cole argues that the new law won't mollify angry Sunni Arabs and that it, in fact, will not allow many to take up their old jobs.
If the new law was good for ex-Baathists, then the ex-Baathists in parliament will have voted for it and praised it, right? And likely the Sadrists (hard line anti-Baath Shiites) and Kurds would be a little upset. Instead, parliament's version of this law was spearheaded by Sadrists, and the ex-Baathists in parliament criticized it.
The headlines are all saying that the law permits Baathists back into public life. It seems actually to demand that they be fired or retire on a pension, and any who are employed are excluded from sensitive ministries.
The legislation is at once confusing and controversial, a document riddled with loopholes and caveats to the point that some Sunni and Shiite officials say it could actually exclude more former Baathists than it lets back in, particularly in the crucial security ministries.
Under that interpretation, the law would be directly at odds with the American campaign to draft Sunni Arabs into so-called Awakening militias with the aim of integrating them into the police and military forces.
"This law includes some good articles, and it's better than the last de-Baathification law because it gives pensions to third-level Baathists," said Khalaf Aulian, a Sunni politician who opposed the legislation. "But I don't like the law as a whole, because it will remain as a sword on the neck of the people.
"Maybe in the future they will use it to prevent anyone they like from keeping their job," he said.
But the Arab News of Saudi Arabia – a Sunni country that has been worried about the marginalization of Sunni Arabs in Iraq's political life – praised the new law as an important step toward healing Iraq's divisions.
This first major piece of US-backed legislation the Iraqi Parliament has adopted is a candid admission that the US made a colossal mistake when it adopted its de-Baathification policy shortly after the 2003 invasion.
The legislation and the US position on it indicate a new realism in Washington, a recognition that long years of grandiose plans have not worked in Iraq. The Iraqis are at the point where they are able to fashion their own approaches and desired outcomes, and Washington, in part, apparently recognizes that and in part is reflecting on its Iraqi policies over the past few years. And the Americans seem increasingly prepared to say that whatever needs to be done should be done on Iraqi terms.