- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006

BAGHDAD — A day after former dictator Saddam Hussein was sentenced to hang, the country’s Shi’ite-dominated government declared a major concession to his Sunni Muslim backers that could see thousands of purged Ba’ath Party members reinstated to their jobs.

The Supreme National Commission for De-Ba’athification has prepared a draft law with the amendments and soon will send it to parliament for ratification, commission Executive Director Ali al-Lami told Associated Press today.

“We decided to make the announcement after the Saddam verdict so that the de-Ba’athification commission would not be accused of bias,” Mr. al-Lami said.

The announcement came as a round-the clock curfew imposed for the Saddam verdict was easing gradually in Baghdad, with pedestrians allowed back on the streets after an expected surge in violence following the court’s decision did not materialize.

Vehicle traffic in Baghdad would be permitted beginning at 6 a.m. tomorrow, said police Lt. Mohammed Khayoun and an aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

A U.S. helicopter also crashed north of the Iraqi capital today, killing two American soldiers on board, and two Marines and a soldier were killed in fighting in the country’s restive Anbar province.

The military said no gunfire was reported in the area at the time of the helicopter crash. The incident occurred in Salahuddin province, which includes Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and also was under curfew.

With the helicopter crash and the Anbar deaths, the number of U.S. troops killed this month in Iraq rose to 18, and they followed a particularly violent month for the American military in Iraq, which saw 105 deaths in October.

The amendments are in harmony with a 24-point national reconciliation plan that was announced in June by the Shi’ite prime minister in which he called for reviewing the de-Ba’athification program, Mr. al-Lami said. Mr. al-Maliki’s reconciliation plan aims to end an insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis since the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Before the amendments were drawn up, the organization listed names of 10,302 senior Ba’ath Party members who were to be fired, but the new proposed law has just 1,500 names, Mr. al-Lami said.

Those who will lose their jobs will get retirement pensions, he said, adding that 7,688 have been fired since the organization was established in January 2004.

Members of Saddam’s elite dissolved security agencies and the members of the paramilitary Saddam’s Fedayeen that were run by the former president’s late son Uday were not under the scrutiny of the commission but were handled by the prime minister’s office, Mr. al-Lami said.

Many Sunni Arabs here say the de-Ba’athification process was aimed at removing members of their minority sect — which ruled Iraq for decades until the fall of Saddam — from state institutions. Mr. al-Lami strongly denied such accusations, saying that more Ba’athists from the predominantly Shi’ite southern Iraq lost their jobs than in central Sunni areas.

The United States dissolved and banned the formerly ruling Ba’ath Party in May 2003, a month after toppling Saddam, but later softened its stance, inviting former high-level officers from the disbanded military to join the security forces. The former top U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, also allowed thousands of teachers who were Ba’athists to return to work.

Since it was founded, the de-Ba’athification committee has vetted thousands of former Ba’athists who returned to work, while others who proved to be senior Ba’ath Party members were sacked.

In another development, the uncle of a U.S. soldier kidnapped last month in Baghdad said today that he thinks his nephew’s abductors belong to a “well-organized” rogue cell from the Shi’ite Mahdi Army militia of the anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Entifadh Qanbar, the uncle, said he had received a $250,000 ransom demand from the kidnappers through an intermediary. He said he had in turn demanded proof that his nephew was alive and well before entering negotiations.

The U.S. military said last week that there was “an ongoing dialogue” to win the release of Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, a 41-year-old reserve soldier from Ann Arbor, Mich. Spc. Al-Taayie was visiting his Iraqi wife’s family when he was handcuffed and taken away by gunmen.

U.S. officials, like Mr. Qanbar, said there had been no news of the missing soldier.

“We continue to conduct operations based on actionable intelligence to find our soldier,” Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said today. “His safe return is obviously a top priority.”

Mr. Qanbar, a former spokesman for the National Congress Party of senior Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, said he had had contact with the kidnappers through an intermediary in Baghdad but had not heard from them since Saturday when he demanded that he be shown proof that Spc. al-Taayie was alive.

“I want to see him next to the same-day newspaper or in a video. I want him to answer certain questions. Any proof that he is still alive,” Mr. Qanbar told Associated Press by telephone from Amman, in neighboring Jordan.

Mr. Qanbar said he thinks a man he identified as Majid al-Qais Omran, also known by his nickname Abu Rami, is responsible for the kidnapping and said he thinks he was the leader of an experienced gang.

“It is a very capable gang with a great deal of resources,” Mr. Qanbar said. “They identified themselves as Mahdi Army members, but I believe they belong to a breakaway cell of the Mahdi Army. Their conduct suggest they have experience in this line of work.”

The soldier’s wife and two of her siblings have been taken by American troops to the Green Zone, where they were being kept for their safety.

The military was withholding the names of the latest fatalities pending notification of their families, but it identified both Marines as having been assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5. A brief statement from the military said one Marine died on Saturday from wounds received in combat, while the other was wounded in fighting on Saturday and died today.

The military said the soldier had been assigned to 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division and died today from wounds received in combat, but it didn’t say when he was wounded.

The relentless death toll continued among Iraqis as well. Despite the curfew, the bodies of 50 victims were discovered Sunday, the bulk of them in Baghdad, police said. Mortars also slammed into a Sunni neighborhood in northern Baghdad today, although no damage or casualties were reported.

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