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The most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq has rejected an American-backed proposal to allow thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to government service, an aide to the cleric said on Monday.

The rejection by the cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appears certain to fuel hostility between the majority Shiites and the former ruling Sunni Arabs, since many Sunni Arabs say they were unfairly purged from the government in the clampdown on the Baath Party.

The Americans say a partial reversal of the de-Baathification process, which began in 2003, is one of the most crucial steps the Iraqi government can take in wooing back disaffected Sunni Arabs and draining the Sunni-led insurgency of its zealotry. The White House has repeatedly told the Iraqi government that the process must be changed.

The latest proposal was announced by Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani on March 26 at the strong urging of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the senior American envoy to Iraq, who left his job the same day. American officials oversaw the drafting of the proposal.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and candidate for president who advocates a troop increase in Iraq, said in an upbeat news conference here on Sunday that the Iraqis had demonstrated political progress by committing to revising the de-Baathification law.

But an aide to al-Sistani said on Monday that there was a "general feeling of rejection" over the proposal.

Al-Sistani, who lives in the holy city of Najaf, generally does not issue proclamations himself, preferring to make his edicts known through his aides or other Iraqi officials. His word is considered sacrosanct not only among the Shiites in Iraq but also among those throughout the world, so his rejection of the draft law means it has virtually no chance of passage.

The Bush administration urged the Iraqi government to follow through with the revision of the law. A senior official said on Monday that he hoped that al-Maliki would work with al-Sistani to figure out a way to differentiate between Saddam loyalists and lower-level Baath Party functionaries. "Among the political benchmarks which the Iraqis themselves have set, this is among the most difficult," the official said.

News of the rejection drew harsh criticism from Sunni Arab leaders on Monday.