By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD, June 17 (Reuters) - When the Iraqi parliament passed a law in January aimed at rehiring former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, U.S. President George W. Bush praised it as a step towards national reconciliation.
The Accountability and Justice Law replaced the deBaathification Law, under which tens of thousands of former Baathists, mostly Sunni Arabs, were purged from government and security posts following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
But five months later, implementation of the law is bogged down by infighting between politicians, and the committee once tasked with hunting out Baathists in government has found itself in the odd position of overseeing the process of rehiring them or offering them state pensions.
The government has still not appointed a seven-member panel to replace the deBaathification Committee, whose enthusiastic purge of Baathists from government posts prompted minority Sunni Arabs to accuse them of conducting a witch-hunt.
The Accountability and Justice Law was the first of a series of so-called "benchmark" laws that Washington pressed Iraq's Shi'ite-led government to pass to foster reconciliation. Sunni Arabs, dominant under Saddam, had complained that the deBaathification programme amounted to collective punishment.
The law is seen as crucial to easing sectarian tensions between Iraq's majority Shi'ite sect and Sunni Arab Muslims that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006.
Ali al-Freji, 43, sits in his office behind the high walls of Saddam's former propaganda headquarters in Baghdad.
Freji is a director-general in the Accountability and Justice Committee, where staff rebuke visitors who still refer to it by its old name, the deBaathification Committee.
Freji, a former opponent of Saddam's rule who says he was jailed in Germany for more than a year for breaking into the Iraqi embassy there, sees himself as a man with a new mission.
"We are doing a professional job by offering former Baathists a new start and stop their suffering," he said.
The committee has received 14,000 applications from former Baathists asking for either reinstatement or for pensions, he said.
But Iraq's presidency council -- which comprises Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, and his two deputies -- and a separate Accountability and Justice Committee in parliament have ordered Freji and his colleagues to freeze their work.
Letters sent by the two bodies to Freji's committee last month, seen by Reuters, said the committee could continue to operate in a caretaker capacity, receiving the applications but not making any decisions on them. It would be up to the new panel, to comprise senior officials, to approve or reject them.
Parliament's legal committee, however, gave contradictory instructions. It sent a third letter to Freji on June 5, telling him to ignore the other letters and continue with his work.
"The presidency council has no right to interfere in this issue because it is not a government. Its powers are honorary," said Baha al-Araji, the head of parliament's legal committee and a legislator in Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's political bloc.
Amid the confusion and conflicting signals from parliament, the biggest Sunni Arab bloc is already seeking amendments to the new law. It objects to a provision under which 7,000 former Baathists serving in the security services would be dismissed.
"Forcing former Baathists out of a job, especially in the security forces will lead to confusion ... at a time when their efforts are urgently needed by the country," said Accordance Front lawmaker Rasheed al-Azzawi.
Azzawi blamed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government for the delay in forming the panel, saying parliament had sent the cabinet a letter in March urging them to nominate members.
The Accordance Front suspended negotiations on rejoining Maliki's government last month in what was seen as another blow to reconciliation efforts.
(For a factbox on Iraq's legislative agenda, click on [nL17273670]
(Writing by Ross Colvin, Editing by Samia Nakhoul)