BAGHDAD — Iraq's parliament passed a benchmark law Saturday allowing lower-ranking former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to reclaim government jobs, the first major piece of U.S.-backed legislation it has adopted.
Traveling in Manama, Bahrain, President Bush hailed the law as "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," he said.
The seismic piece of legislation had been demanded by the United States since November 2006 and represented the first legislative payoff for Bush's decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops to the country to quell violence.
In announcing the troop buildup more than a year ago, Bush said it would provide the Iraqi government "breathing space" to begin tackling legislation designed to reconcile Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Arabs as well as Kurds.
Other benchmarks languish, though, including legislation to divvy up the country's vast oil wealth, constitutional amendments demanded by the Sunni Arabs and a bill spelling out rules for local elections.
It was not immediately clear how many former Baathists would benefit from the new legislation, titled the Accountability and Justice law. But the move was seen as a key step in the reconciliation process.
Before the party was outlawed _ the first official act of L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority _ its membership was estimated at between 2 million and 6 million.
The strict implementation of so-called de-Baathification rules meant that many senior bureaucrats who knew how to run ministries, university departments and state companies were fired after 35 years of Baath party rule.
Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority order No. 1 of May 16, 2003, had effectively stripped key government ministries, the military and top economic institutions of centuries of cumulative experience.
The order also was blamed for fueling the Sunni-dominated insurgency that took root in the late summer of 2003, under the leadership of ousted Sunni Baathists who sought vengeance against what they saw as their American tormentors.
The leadership cadres drew primarily from the Sunni Muslim community, reflecting Saddam's sectarian base _ a minority in Iraq. Because advancement in government and professional circles during the Saddam era depended on Baath Party membership, majority Shiites also made up a large portion of the party rank-and-file.
The bill was approved by an unanimous show of hands on each of its 30 clauses. The measure seeks to relax restrictions on the rights of former party members to fill government posts. It also would allow reinstatement of thousands of lower-ranking Baathists dismissed from government jobs on Bremer's order in the first month after Baghdad fell to invading American forces.
Ali al-Lami, a senior official who has worked on the new legislation, said 3,500 former high-ranking Baathists would be offered retirement and pensions. He said 13,000 lower-ranking Baathists would be offered reinstatement. Also, 7,000 people now holding government jobs but who had been members of Saddam's security service would be retired and given pensions.
Iraq's military already had worked through the Baath Party problem, declaring that anyone who had served above the rank of major in Saddam's time would be automatically retired and put on pension. Those who held the rank of major or below were allowed to return to the military if qualified.
The Bush administration initially had promoted de-Baathification as a worthy and necessary goal, but later claimed that Iraqi authorities went beyond even what the Americans had contemplated to keep Saddam's supporters out of important jobs.
With the Sunni insurgency raging and political leaders making little progress in reconciliation, the Americans switched positions and urged the dismantling of de-Baathification laws.
Later, enacting and implementing legislation reinstating the fired Baath supporters became one of 18 so-called benchmark issues the U.S. sought as measures for progress in national reconciliation.
The legislation can become law only when approved by Iraq's presidential council. The council, comprised of Iraq's president and two vice presidents, is expected to ratify the measure.
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.