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Mr. Maliki’s earlier effort to reunite the country was one of Washington’s primary benchmarks for measuring political progress in Iraq. The goal was to separate Baathist opponents of the government who were considered more willing to trade violence for political power from intractable extremists.
Early last year, under intense American pressure, Mr. Maliki pushed through Parliament a law to ease restrictions on the return of Baath Party members to public life. But 15 months later, the law has yet to be put into effect.
Mr. Maliki’s retreat risks polarizing Iraqis again and eroding hard-fought security gains. One hundred sixty people died in bombings on Thursday and Friday alone. There is no evidence that Baathists were involved, but fears are rising that they and jihadi insurgents are increasingly cooperating
Mr. Maliki has changed his tone despite American pressure to reconcile with some officials under Mr. Hussein, most of them Sunni Arabs.
“He is no different from the political and religious leaders who are driven by emotions and animosity toward anything related to the past,” General Hamdani said of Mr. Maliki, in a written response to questions about his talks with the government.
The prime minister’s return to a hard line appears to be motivated by a number of factors.
Despite Mr. Maliki’s success in provincial elections in January and in projecting himself as a strong nonsectarian leader, his Dawa Party recognizes that it still needs his Shiite partners to govern. And his Shiite rivals, many of whom are close to Iran, have accused him of recently orchestrating a wholesale return of Baathists to bolster his standing with the Sunni minority.
Ahmad Chalabi, a Shiite politician who led the push six years ago to purge Iraq of the Baath Party, said that despite Mr. Maliki’s pragmatic efforts to court Sunni support, the prime minister retained a visceral hatred for everything associated with the Baath Party and the brutal former regime.