The political background for this somewhat more permissive arrangement for ex-Baathists is rapprochement between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and parts of the secular and Sunni-dominated Iraqiyya headed by Saleh al-Mutlak. Whereas much of Iraqiyya has been boycotting both parliament and cabinet lately in protest against what they see as undue centralisation of power by Maliki, Mutlak has opted to return to cabinet alongside a few other ministers who disagree with the hardline stances of Iraqiyya leader Ayyad Allawi as well as Rafi al-Eisawi and Tareq al-Hashemi.
It is important to stress that a softening of the de-Baathification legislation is not something that uniquely benefits Sunnis or other secular Iraqiyya supporters. Maliki has himself relied on large numbers of Shiites who served Saddam, and the fact that their pasts were often brushed under the carpet created a major inconsistency in the way de-Baathification was applied. By way of example, embattled supreme court chief Midhat al-Mahmud is accused precisely of having been a firqa member of the Baath in Baghdad; the proposed changes of the law would make him eligible to continue to serve regardless of those accusations.
The key question, then, is whether the bill will be passed by parliament. When the debate gets going, it should serve as a good opportunity for Maliki to reach out to much-needed potential supporters among Sunnis and secularists and making his constant references to a “political majority” to something more than rhetoric. Already there are interesting signs that whereas the Sadrists are attacking the bill, Maliki allies in parliament are defending it. For their part, Iraqiyya MPs would thoroughly stultify themselves if they reject the bill out of personal opposition to Maliki despite the fact that it will help their constituencies. Accordingly, with the Kurds currently boycotting parliament and often uncommitted in de-Baathification questions, Maliki now has the chance to cast himself as a moderate after he failed to play that role when de-Baathification came on the agenda during the months leading up to parliamentary elections in March 2010.
In sum, the progress in the Iraqi cabinet on the de-Baathification bill indicates an atmosphere very different from the visions of partition and regional conflagration that dominate media commentary on Iraq during the upsurge of anniversary contributions. Ironically, 10 years on, it seems that the pragmatic nuts and bolts of reinstating officials of the hated Baath may serve as a bridge-builder towards national unity as much as a source of conflict for Iraqis.