BAGHDAD - Iraq's parliament voted on Saturday to let thousands of members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party return to government jobs, winning praise from Washington for achieving a benchmark step toward reconciling warring sects.
The law is the first of a series of measures that Washington has long been pressing the Shi'ite Islamist-led government to pass in an effort to draw the minority Sunni Arab community that held sway under Saddam closer into the political process.
"This law preserves the rights of the Iraqi people after the crimes committed by the Baath Party while also benefiting the innocent members of the party. This law provides a balance," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
Washington had introduced "de-Baathification" when it administered Iraq in 2003-04, but later acknowledged that the measures went too far and asked Iraqi leaders to ease them.
"It's an important step toward reconciliation. It's an important sign that the leaders of that country understand that they must work together to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people," US President George W. Bush said.
He was speaking in Bahrain, where he is holding talks with leaders as part of a Middle East tour.
Iraq's failure to pass the bill last year had been seen as one of the main signs that political progress toward reconciliation was stalled even as security improved.
The United Nations envoy in Baghdad, Staffan de Mistura, told Reuters: "This is good news and a right step in the long overdue direction towards national reconciliation. It is important that this process is as inclusive as possible."
Efforts to end deadlock
The law is part of a wider effort to end a political deadlock that saw the main Sunni Arab bloc pull out of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government last August.
"The law has been passed. We see it as a very good sign of progress and it will greatly benefit Baathists. It was passed smoothly and opposition was small," said Rasheed al-Azzawi, a Sunni member of the committee which helped draft it.