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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- The top U.S. administrator in Iraq announced Friday an easing of the ban on public sector jobs for members of Saddam Hussein's disbanded party, allowing thousands of former Baathists to return to positions in the military and Iraqi schools and universities.
The announcement represented an admission of mistakes in a centerpiece of U.S. policy after Saddam's fall -- the dissolution of the Baath Party and the 350,000-member military, which were key tools of repression by the former regime.
Meanwhile, the death toll in a series of suicide bombings that targeted police stations and the police academy in the southern city of Basra rose to 74, with more than 160 people wounded, coalition spokesman Dominic d'Angelo said Friday. The toll reflected the deaths of some of those wounded in Wednesday's attacks since initial reports of 68 people killed.
Most Iraqi leaders welcomed the policy changes toward former Baathists, saying the strong purge was a mistake from the start and fueled the anti-U.S. insurgency.
Some Shiite members, however, expressed fears that the move could return to positions of authority Baathists who helped repress Iraqis for decades. U.S. officials say the easing will still keep Baathists who committed crimes out of government.
"Many Iraqis have complained to me that the de-Baathification policy has been applied unevenly and unjustly," top administrator L. Paul Bremer said, calling the complaints "legitimate."
"The de-Baathification was and is sound," he said. "It is the right policy for Iraq, but it has been poorly implemented."
Thousands of teachers and professors who have been barred from their jobs will immediately be allowed back to work, Bremer announced in an address aired on U.S.-run Al-Iraqiya television.
Also, the Iraqi defense minister will meet with former commanders from Saddam's military to discuss recruiting high officers from the disbanded force into the new army that the U.S.-led occupation is rebuilding from scratch.
Bremer and U.S. officials insisted that former Baathists "with blood on their hands" would not regain their posts.
But some Shiite members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council expressed concern.
"If this decision includes Baathists who took part in harming and oppressing our people, it will lead to violence in the streets by the families of those who were killed by the Baath and those whose relatives were buried in mass graves," said Adnan Hadi al-Asadi, representative of Shiite councilmember Ibrahim al-Jaafari
The U.S. decision to disband Saddam's military and the Baath party after Saddam's fall was at first popular. But it led to widespread unemployment, especially among the Sunni minority that formed the core of Saddam's regime. Some of the unemployed went on to join the ranks of the anti-U.S. insurgency, Iraqis and U.S. commanders say.
The push of Baathists out of government positions also cost the country needed expertise at a time when it is trying to rebuild. Even some U.S. officials have complained that the de-Baathification program was too heavy-handed.
U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi criticized the program last week, saying, "It is difficult to understand that thousands upon thousands ... of professionals sorely needed in the country have been dismissed."
The new change comes during the bloodiest month since the U.S. occupation began, with U.S. forces fighting Sunni Muslim insurgents in the center of the country and Shiite militiamen in the south.
Under the de-Baathification program, former lower-level Baathists removed from their posts must file appeals to show they committed no crimes.
U.S. coalition spokesman Dan Senor said some 14,000 teachers won their appeals but had still not been given their jobs because of "technical glitches." He said those teachers would immediately be given positions.
The appeals process for other teachers will be speeded up, with each appeal to be resolved within 20 days, Senor said.
The new implementation applies to the Ministries of Education and Higher Education, and Senor said there were no plans at the moment to expand it elsewhere.
In the military, 70 percent of the rebuilding army -- due to reach 35,000 troops by September -- previously served in Saddam's armed forces. Now, higher ranking officers will be brought in, Senor said.
Gen. John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, disclosed last week that the military was reaching out to former senior Iraqi army officers to help shore up the struggling Iraqi security services.
Council member Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Kurd, welcomed the new policy but said it was "a bit late."
U.S. administrators "see now that they were not right with the quick options," he said. Dismissing the Baath "created unemployment and a lot of people went into the streets with guns and became enemies.
Council member Ahmad Chalabi, who heads the de-Baathification Commission that had carried out the purge, defended the process.
"There isn't a child in Iraq who is deprived from education because of the de-Baathification process; on the contrary, we are working hard to guarantee that there are teachers," Chalabi said.
Saddam's Baathist party was in power for some 34 years and controlled almost all sectors of society. Teachers, civil servants and army officers were often required to join the party. Some 1.5 million of Iraq's 24 million people are believed to have been party members.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)