Iraq Again Mulls Amnesty Plan

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 3, 2007

BAGHDAD, Nov. 2 -- The Iraqi government has resumed discussions about an amnesty program to encourage insurgents and militiamen to lay down their weapons as daily violence lessens across the country, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.

Iraq's deputy national security adviser, Safa Hussein, said he has been meeting with various Iraqi officials to generate political support for a "conditional amnesty" program that would initially cover members of insurgent and militia groups who do not have "blood on their hands."

For years, Iraqi officials have debated amnesty programs, but they have proved politically impossible to implement in the bitter sectarian climate and amid such rampant violence.

In the past, "many of the areas were controlled by al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups. It was meaningless to give them amnesty when they were in control," Hussein said. "Now they are on the run, so the amnesty has some meaning to the people. I think it could have a very good impact."

Not long after Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister last year, he proposed an amnesty as a way to defuse the violent Sunni insurgency and as part of a broad initiative intended to bring about national reconciliation. The debate about which insurgents it might cover sparked outrage in Iraq as well as in the U.S. Congress, where legislators insisted that people who have killed American soldiers should not be pardoned. As violence raged throughout the year, the amnesty proposal was abandoned.

Hussein said he hopes the Iraqi government this time can start small, by addressing the least controversial cases -- members of insurgent or militia groups who have not been accused of crimes -- in small geographical areas. He said Jihad, a neighborhood in southwestern Baghdad, and Taji, a city north of the capital, might be potential test sites for the amnesty.

If the program is successful on that limited basis, he said, he envisions it expanding to other areas and to suspected criminals but not murderers, and then to some prisoners in U.S. and Iraqi custody.

Sami al-Askiri, a Shiite legislator and an adviser to Maliki, confirmed that "there is talk about this, but there has not yet been a decision.

"Really, we have to discuss it. It's not an easy matter, and we have to take in all the considerations about how it will affect security," Askiri said. "If you release al-Qaeda members, what will guarantee they won't commit crimes?

"My opinion, and I don't speak for others, is those who have committed crimes themselves, killing innocent people, must not be included, but those who are joining the armed groups or helping them, not in a violent way, they might be included," he added.

Hussein said Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, sent a letter to Maliki about the importance of considering an amnesty program. A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Steven A. Boylan, said that he did not have any information about such a letter and that Petraeus was not available Friday evening to discuss the issue.

When asked about the amnesty proposal last week, Petraeus said the matter was under discussion but still developing.

"The big ideas don't just sort of fall out of the sky into your lap. They sort of accumulate, and there's an idea that might be accumulating, if you will, about some form of amnesty. We've all danced around this a little bit. . . . Before we get too eager to embrace this, we want to make sure it doesn't mean that you open the gate at Camp Bucca and all the Takfiris come out," he said, referring to a U.S. military detention facility in Iraq and a branch of extremist Sunni Muslims.

Petraeus added that the U.S. military's recent efforts to recruit former Sunni insurgents as partners in the fight against the group al-Qaeda in Iraq was a form of conditional immunity, provided that they did not commit new crimes. Under Hussein's proposal, those who are granted amnesty but commit future crimes would be subject to prosecution for those as well as for past involvement with insurgent or militia groups.

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