By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 15, 2006
BAGHDAD, June 14 -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday proposed a limited amnesty to help end the Sunni Arab insurgency as part of a national reconciliation plan that Maliki said would be released within days. The plan is likely to include pardons for those who had attacked only U.S. troops, a top adviser said.
Maliki's declaration of openness to talks with some members of Sunni armed factions, and the prospect of pardons, are concessions that previous, interim governments had avoided. The statements marked the first time a leader from Iraq's governing Shiite religious parties has publicly embraced national reconciliation, welcomed dialogue with armed groups and proposed a limited amnesty.
Reconciliation could include an amnesty for those "who weren't involved in the shedding of Iraqi blood," Maliki told reporters at a Baghdad news conference. "Also, it includes talks with the armed men who opposed the political process and now want to turn back to political activity."
Maliki stressed that he had not yet met with the Sunni resistance and added, "We will talk to those whose hands are not stained with blood, and we hope they would rethink their strategy." He vowed that they "will not be able to interrupt the political process, either by wanting to bring back the old regime, or imposing an ugly, ethnic new regime upon Iraq."
As Maliki spoke, Iraqi soldiers and police led the first day of a security crackdown in Baghdad. A force of more than 30,000 uniformed Iraqi security personnel, backed by more than 30,000 U.S.-led foreign troops, enforced the first day of a dusk-to-dawn curfew and stepped up checkpoints throughout the capital. Iraq's Interior Ministry said Tuesday that no additional troops were brought in for the operation.
Thanks to Wednesday's expanded checkpoints -- one of the first clear efforts of Maliki's new government -- there were traffic-snarling jams across Baghdad. "We have noticed less and less people shopping, but I would rather have security than more customers," said Wisam Saad, 29, who stood in a shop empty of customers, surrounded by cigar boxes, teapots and trinkets.
Iraq's previous, transitional government, led by Ibrahim al-Jafari, a Shiite, launched a similar crackdown last year but it failed to deter the violence. After elections in December selected Iraq's first full-term parliament since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Maliki won appointment as prime minister. His month-old administration has seen rapid movement on some long-standing demands from Sunni opponents of the Shiite governments, such as the U.S.-Iraqi agreement to free thousands of detainees in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq this month. Hundreds are due to be released from the Abu Ghraib prison on Thursday.
Maliki's security crackdown and talk of amnesty and reconciliation came a day after President Bush's unannounced visit to Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. Bush came with what he said were twin messages for Maliki: The United States would not abandon Iraq, but Iraq needed to do more to tackle its problems.
The violence continued Wednesday. A bomb placed in a parked car exploded in northern Baghdad, missing the police patrol that was its apparent target but killing four civilians. A photographer for the Reuters news service, caught in the traffic, reported witnessing bystanders sticking bars into vehicles in an effort to pull out victims who were burning alive.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has long talked of negotiations and a possible limited amnesty to help end Iraq's violence. However, Maliki's statements Wednesday marked the greatest public show of willingness to compromise from governments led by the Shiite religious parties.
The Arab League on Wednesday postponed a reconciliation conference for Iraq that had been set for August. Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, a top adviser to Maliki, said the conference was delayed in part so Iraq could decide who might be eligible for any amnesty. It was not clear how the government would verify which insurgents have been responsible for which types of attacks.
"The government has in mind somehow to do reconciliation, and one way to do it is to offer an amnesty, but not a sort of unconditional amnesty," Kadhimi said in a telephone interview. "We can see if somehow those who are so-called resistance can be accepted if they have not been involved in any kind of criminal behavior, such as killing innocent people or damaging infrastructure, and even infrastructure if it is minor will be pardoned."
The reconciliation effort pioneered by South Africa after the collapse of apartheid might be a model, Kadhimi said. "One way was to admit what you have done and you will be forgiven, and maybe parts of this can be considered. Because once we see people coming forward to admit what they have done, and it's within the areas the government has the right to pardon, it could happen."
Asked about clemency for those who attacked U.S. troops, he said: "That's an area where we can see a green line. There's some sort of preliminary understanding between us and the MNF-I," the U.S.-led Multi-National Force-Iraq, "that there is a patriotic feeling among the Iraqi youth and the belief that those attacks are legitimate acts of resistance and defending their homeland. These people will be pardoned definitely, I believe."
Asked about pardons for those who had attacked Iraqi forces, he said: "This needs to be carefully studied or designed so maybe the family of those individuals killed have a right to make a claim at the court, because that is a public right. Or maybe the government can compensate them."
U.S. diplomatic officials have said previously that they were encouraging dialogue among Iraq's many rival factions, but none has confirmed U.S. backing for an amnesty offer.
Maliki also addressed the problem of militias allied with his Shiite religious bloc. "Our success in the national reconciliation plan and our success in providing services will give . . . a message that there is no need anymore for militias, because security is under the government's control." He had earlier proposed that militias be absorbed into Iraq's security forces.
Maliki's statements come as there is growing openness to dialogue on all sides of Iraq's ethnic and religious divides. Talabani told reporters at a news conference in the Kurdish north last weekend that he believed 2006 might be the year of peace settlements for Iraq.
Similarly, the top Sunni Arab in Iraq's new government said this week that he believed a peace deal was "very close." Salam al-Zobaie, the deputy prime minister, said in an interview in his Baghdad office this week that the difference this time was that the new Shiite-led government was indicating openness to compromise.
Asked about proposals of amnesty for Sunni insurgents, Zobaie said the previous Shiite governments "closed the door" on the Sunnis "and forced them to take up the gun to defend themselves. We should be talking about an apology, not amnesty."
Bahaa al-Araji, a lawmaker and supporter of Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, said Wednesday that members of the governing Shiite alliance were formally asked by their bloc this week to evaluate who might be acceptable partners for dialogue on the Sunni side.
Speaking before Maliki's news conference, Araji rejected some of what he said were too-easy peace terms being floated by Talabani. He said Talabani was speaking from the perspective of a northern Kurd spared the scale of violence that has bloodied the rest of Iraq.
Rather than a reconciliation conference, Araji said, the best step for peace in Iraq would be for leaders of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish blocs in parliament to come to terms among themselves.
"That will take care of 90 percent of the people" in Iraq's conflict. The remaining 10 percent "will then be isolated and exposed, so all their evil steps are obvious to us and to them," Araji said. Military forces could deal with the remaining hard-liners after any reconciliation, he said.
Asked if he was optimistic about prospects for an easing of the killings, Araji cited the Feb. 22 bombing of the golden-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad. Destruction of the shrine spurred sectarian violence to new and lasting heights.
"Not as optimistic as I was six months ago," the Shiite lawmaker said. "More than I was three months ago."
Staff writer Joshua Partlow and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.