Maj. Gen. Hussein al-Awadi, a former official in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, became the commander of the Iraqi National Police despite a 2003 law barring the party from government.
But now, under new legislation promoted as way to return former Baathists to public life, the 56-year-old and thousands like him could be forced out of jobs they have been allowed to hold, according to Iraqi lawmakers and the government agency that oversees ex-Baathists.
"This new law is very confusing," Awadi said. "I don't really know what it means for me."
He is not alone. More than a dozen Iraqi lawmakers, U.S. officials and former Baathists here and in exile expressed concern in interviews that the law could set off a new purge of ex-Baathists, the opposite of U.S. hopes for the legislation.
Approved by parliament this month under pressure from U.S. officials, the law was heralded by President Bush and Iraqi leaders as a way to soothe the deep anger of many ex-Baathists -- primarily Sunnis but also many Shiites such as Awadi -- toward the Shiite-led government.
Yet U.S. officials and even legislators who voted for the measure, which still requires approval by Iraq's presidency council, acknowledge that its impact is hard to assess from its text and will depend on how it is implemented. Some say the law's primary aim is not to return ex-Baathists to work, but to recognize and compensate those harmed by the party. Of the law's eight stated justifications, none mentions reinstating ex-Baathists to their jobs.
"The law is about as clear as mud," said one U.S. senior diplomat.
The confusion has been compounded because the information on former party members comes from the de-Baathification commission headed by Ahmed Chalabi, the former deputy prime minister who as an Iraqi exile sought to convince U.S. officials that Hussein's government had weapons of mass destruction. In light of the absence of such weapons, many Iraqi and U.S. officials are suspicious of his commission's statistics.
In an interview at his lavish home in the Mansour district, Chalabi said the new legislation would drive out some of the former Baathists his commission had allowed to return to government. The new measure, he said, is much harsher than the existing policy and a draft of the law that the United States had encouraged parliament to pass.
"Put this under the category of: Be careful what you wish for," Chalabi said.
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