April 2, 2007 / 11:09 AM / in 11 years

Top Iraqi Shi'ite cleric rejects Baathist law

NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq’s most senior Shi‘ite cleric opposes a new draft law that would allow thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party to return to public life, one of his aides said on Monday.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive but influential figure, is the spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shi‘ites. He rarely makes public statements himself but his utterances, even through aides, are closely monitored by his followers.

Shi‘ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, agreed on the new draft law last week, which must go before parliament for ratification.

The bill proposes that only senior members of the now-outlawed Baath party will be banned from public life. The rest will be entitled to reappointment. It also suggests giving Baath members immunity from legal action, after a three-month window for lawsuits to be filed.

“Sistani’s office refuses the replacement of the law because it is not an Iraqi demand but it is a political demand to please some sides,” an aide to Sistani said in the holy city of Najaf.

Washington has pushed Maliki’s government to reach out to disaffected minority Sunnis, who form the backbone of a four-year-old insurgency, by amending the law on de-Baathification under which thousands of party members, many of them Sunnis, were fired from government and military jobs.

But the De-Baathification Commission, which was set up under U.S. military rule in 2003 to purge Baath officials, complains it was not consulted on the bill, which it says will lead to former Baathists returning to senior positions of power.

The head of the committee, Ahmed Chalabi, a former Washington favorite, held talks with Sistani in Najaf on Sunday to discuss the bill and the Baghdad security plan.

“As a general rule any law which is not amended in parliament is illegal. This law did not come through the parliament,” said a source close to the Shi‘ite clerical establishment.

Sistani is the sponsor of the ruling United Alliance bloc to which Maliki and other Shi‘ite political leaders belong.

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