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Hiring set for Ba'ath igures

WASHINGTON -- The United States is moving to rehire former members of Iraq's ruling Ba'ath Party and senior Iraqi military officers fired after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, in an effort to undo the damage of its two most controversial policies in Iraq, according to US officials.

The US administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, proposed the policy shifts to broaden the strategy to entice the powerful Sunni minority back into the political fold and weaken support for the insurgency in the volatile Sunni triangle, two of the most persistent challenges for the US-led occupation, the officials say. Both policies are at the heart of national reconciliation, increasingly important as the occupation nears the date of a planned handover to an Iraqi government.

"Iraq has a highly marginalized Sunni minority, and the more that people of standing can be taken off the pariah list, the more that community will become involved politically," said a senior envoy from a country in the US-led coalition.

The Bush administration is now fleshing out details, which it hopes to conclude this week. But US official said the United States, backed by Britain, has decided in principle to "fix" or "soften" the rigid rules that led to the automatic firing of Iraqis in the Ba'ath Party from jobs ranging from top government positions to teachers and doctors, US officals said.

The US-led coalition is already bringing back senior military officers to provide experienced leadership to the fragile new Iraqi army, with more than half a dozen generals from Hussein's military appointed to top jobs in the last week alone, US officials said. General John Abizaid, chief of Central Command, is working to identify other commanders to bring back in, officials added.

"The decisions made a year ago have bedeviled the situation on the ground ever since. Walking back these policies is a triumph of the view in the field over policies originally crafted in Washington," said a senior US official involved in Iraq policy. Ironically, the two policies were the first actions taken by Bremer when he arrived in Baghdad to assume leadership of the US-led occupation last May.

The administration insists neither move is a policy reversal, but foreign policy specialists said it will appear that way in practice to Iraqis. "We are reviewing implementation of policies to look at how to better balance the desire to employ resident expertise with the need for justice," said National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.

The first move to revise policy on former Ba'athists will be to reinstate some 11,000 teachers and hundreds of professors fired after Hussein's demise last year, US officials say. "These are many of the people who were treated unfairly by the system. Their Ba'athist status did not reflect their role in the party," said a senior CPA official.

By eventually getting thousands of other well-trained Sunnis back in critical jobs, the long-term goal is to incorporate Sunnis in post-Hussein Iraq.

"More broadly, [this strategy] is again reaching out to the Sunnis and . . . investing them in the process while also not alienating the rest of Iraq, particularly the Shi'ites and the Kurds," added a senior administration official familiar with the discussions.

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