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Shi'ites offer concession to Sunnis

Hope to reinstate jobs of members of Hussein's party

BAGHDAD -- A day after Saddam Hussein was sentenced to hang, the Shi'ite-dominated government offered a major concession yesterday to Hussein's Sunni backers that could see thousands of members of the ousted dictator's Ba'ath Party reinstated in their jobs.

With a tight curfew holding down violence after Hussein's guilty verdict and death sentence, the government reached out to disaffected Sunnis in hopes of enticing them away from the insurgency, which has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and is responsible for the vast majority of US casualties.

The US military announced the deaths of five more American troops, two in a helicopter crash north of Baghdad and three in fighting west of the capital. The deaths raised to 18 the number of US forces killed in the first six days of November.

Relentless sectarian killings also persisted despite the extraordinary security precautions. Fifty-nine bodies were discovered Sunday and yesterday across Iraq, police said. But with no surge in violence, authorities were gradually lifting the restrictions in Baghdad and two restive Sunni provinces: Pedestrians were allowed back on the capital's streets late yesterday afternoon, and the international airport was to reopen this morning.

Around the country, jubilant Shi'ites celebrated the verdict, while Sunnis held defiant counter-demonstrations.

The verdict and opening to Sunnis were seen as a welcome break for the United States, which had recently called for the Iraqi government to stop purging members of Hussein's Ba'ath Party from their jobs. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, has balked at US requests to set up an amnesty for insurgents.

The United States dissolved and banned the Ba'ath Party in May 2003, a month after toppling Hussein. The United States later softened its stance, inviting former high-level officers from the disbanded military to join the security forces.

The former top US administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, also allowed thousands of teachers who were Ba'athists to return to work. He conceived of the so-called de-Ba'athification effort but later found it had gutted key ministries and the military with no replacement personnel among the Iraqi work force and educated elite.

About 1.5 million of Iraq's 27 million people belonged to the Ba'ath Party -- formally known as the Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party -- when Hussein was ousted. Most said they joined for professional, not ideological, reasons.

Career advancement, university enrollment, and specialized medical care depended on party membership. However, those who advanced in the party were expected to spy on fellow Iraqis and to join militias that were accused of helping suppress Shi'ite and Kurdish revolts after the 1991 Gulf War.

The political concession to the Sunnis was detailed by a government organization that had been charged with removing Hussein loyalists from state institutions. Under a draft law, which the Shi'ite-dominated parliament must approve, the organization now plans to amend its rules to enable thousands of former Ba'ath Party members to win back their jobs.

The amendments developed from a 24-point national reconciliation plan that al-Maliki announced in June shortly after taking office.

"Such a move will be in the interest of Iraq because a Ba'athist, like any Iraqi citizen, has the right to get back his job," said Ammar Wajih, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni group.

"This decision could move the country toward stability and could be a way to open bridges between the resistance and the Americans," Wajih said, referring to advances the Americans have pursued with insurgent groups in a bid to end the fighting.

Under the former de-Ba'athification protocols, 10,302 senior party members had been listed for dismissal. The draft law, however, includes the names of just 1,500 Ba'ath party members, said Ali al-Lami, the commission's executive director. Those not reinstated would receive pensions, he said.

The commission was established in January 2004 and has already purged 7,688 party members from government positions.

Many Sunni Arabs say the de-Ba'athification process was aimed at their sect rather than the Ba'ath Party. Until Hussein was ousted, the Sunni minority had ruled Iraq for decades. But Lami said more Shi'ite Ba'ath Party members lost their jobs in southern Iraq than Sunnis did in the central heartland.

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