updated 4/6/2007 5:52:51 PM ET 2007-04-06T21:52:51

Iraq's prime minister on Friday ordered pension payments for senior officers of Saddam Hussein's military and offered a return to service for lower-ranking soldiers, a major step aimed at defusing the Sunni insurgency and meeting U.S. benchmarks for his government.

The decision was made during a Cabinet meeting late last month, according to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office. It was not clear why the information was only released Friday.

Many former top intelligence, security and military officials are believed to have joined the Sunni insurgency after former U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer disbanded Iraq's 350,000-member military on May 23, 2003, a month after Saddam's regime was ousted.

The al-Maliki statement said any former officer above the rank of major would be given a pension equal to that of officers now retiring. Former officers above major who wanted to rejoin the army were encouraged to check with the military command to learn if they were acceptable in the Iraqi army that is being rebuilt by U.S. forces.

Those who had the rank of major or lower may voluntarily return to the army.

Lower ranking officers and enlisted men with scientific or medical training would be given jobs in an appropriate government ministry, the statement said.

Al-Maliki, who is the supreme commander of the armed forces, issued a 24-point reconciliation plan shortly after taking power last year. It was seen then as a positive bid to draw disaffected Sunnis into the political fold. It was never implemented.

The measure still has not reached the floor, a delay that reflects heavy opposition to the measure among Shiite and Kurdish officials whose people were oppressed by Saddam.

The prime minister and President Jalal Talabani were expected to introduce legislation in parliament last week that would allow former members of Saddam's ruling Baath Party — including those in the feared security and paramilitary forces — to regain government jobs.

The Bush administration has set out several benchmarks for al-Maliki's government. One is passage of the de-Baathification law to encourage Sunnis to rejoin the political process.

The draft measure sponsored by al-Maliki and Talabani would set a three-month challenge period after which ex-Baath Party loyalists would be immune from legal punishment for their actions during Saddam's reign.

The bill, which excludes former regime members already charged with or sought for crimes, also would grant state pensions to many Baathists, even if they were denied posts in the government or military.

The reconciliation measure was announced March 26 but never put to parliament. It was thought to have been made public to try to short-circuit expected criticism of Iraq's government at an Arab League summit.

Al-Maliki was said to have taken the action at the time because he feared rising support among U.S.-allied Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan for an Iraqi national salvation government led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a favorite of Washington.

"We present the draft Law of Accountability and Justice to parliament to build an Iraq that is accessible to all Iraqis determined to build a new, democratic Iraq that is far from sectarianism, racism, tyranny, discrimination, exclusion and disenfranchisement," al-Maliki and Talabani said in a joint statement when the measure was announced.

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