BAGHDAD Iraq's Presidency Council is unlikely to ratify a new law that would give thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party their old jobs back, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi said on Thursday.
The step would be a blow to Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the United States, which praised the law's approval on January 12 and called it a key step to advancing national reconciliation.
Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, said the bill passed by parliament was flawed because it meant many people given jobs after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam in 2003 would be forced out so ex-Baathists could return.
"We cannot regard this law as a step in the national reconciliation process. The spirit of revenge is so clear in many articles of the law," Hashemi said in an interview.
"It is not only me who objects to signing it, but the whole Presidency Council."
The council consists of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, Shi'ite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and Hashemi. It must ratify all laws passed by parliament, otherwise they are sent back to the legislature.
The Accountability and Justice Law is one of several being sought by Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community, which was dominant under Saddam.
But many ex-Baathists have already rejoined the military and the civil service in the absence of the law and there have been suggestions they could be purged a second time.
Washington introduced "de-Baathification" under U.S. administrators after the 2003 invasion to rid the military and public service of senior Baath party members. It later acknowledged the measures went too far.
Hashemi said the Presidency Council was coming under pressure from both former Baathists who want their old jobs back and from those currently in the positions.
"The council will call for amendments for a new law," he said. "It is very necessary. Talks are going on."
SUNNI BLOC BACK IN CABINET?
Maliki's government was plunged into crisis last August when the major Sunni Arab bloc, the Accordance Front, withdrew.
Hashemi, a senior member of the Front, said he was optimistic the bloc would return to the Shi'ite-led government but insisted a complete cabinet reshuffle was needed.
The Front quit the government, saying it would not return unless key demands were met. These included the release of thousands of mainly Sunni Arab detainees.
Political issues have taken on greater prominence in Iraq as violence has fallen sharply in recent months.
The number of violent civilian deaths fell again in January, significantly down from a year ago, government figures showed.
According to figures compiled by the interior, defense and health ministries, 466 civilians died violently during the month, down more than 76 percent from the 1,971 killed in January 2006 when the country was on the brink of civil war.
In December, 481 civilians were killed.
U.S. military fatalities were up slightly compared to last month, according to the independent Web site icasualties.org, which tracks military deaths.
So far 38 U.S. soldiers have been killed in January compared with 23 in December, but that figure is much lower than a year ago when 83 died. In all 3,942 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the start of the war.
The sharp decline in violence has partly been attributed to the deployment of an extra 30,000 U.S. soldiers to Iraq in 2007. The military has begun to reduce troop levels.
(Additional reporting by Michael Holden; Writing by Paul Tait and Dean Yates, Editing by Michael Winfrey)