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December 17, 2006
Amnesty For The Ba'athists

One of the pressing problems in Iraq has been the exclusion of the Sunnis since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. The new Iraqi government needs to find a way to get the Sunnis engaged in the governance of Iraq without allowing them to dominate it as they have done throughout the nation's history. Nouri al-Maliki has taken a step in that direction this weekend, throwing open the doors to former members of Saddam's security forces, a move that has unnerved Maliki's Shi'a allies and even some Sunnis:

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government reached out to former members of Saddam Hussein's regime Saturday, inviting them to claim government pensions and rejoin the army in a gesture meant to calm the country's sectarian passions.

"The Iraqi army opens its doors to officers and soldiers from the former army who wish to serve the country," Maliki said at a national reconciliation conference of politicians and sectarian leaders in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

Maliki has been under increasing U.S. pressure to improve security forces. But, exposing fissures that have plagued his struggling government as the country descended into civil war, several Shiite and Sunni Arab groups rejected the proposal, saying it would reward insurgents and stalwarts of Hussein's regime.

Therein lies the problem. If Iraq is to survive and thrive in its post-Saddam version as a representative democracy, then at some point the various factions will have to find a way to reconcile their differences. The Shi'ites lived under the thumb of the Sunnis in the region for decades as Iraq and for centuries prior to that as the Ottoman Empire. They have battled the Sunnis since 2003, and the Sunnis have battled them in return. That cycle shows no evidence of slowing down at the moment.

The only end to this will come when the factions move beyond the past and work towards the future. Maliki wants to jump-start this process by eliminating one of the barriers to Sunni participation, and it's the right thing to do, as long as it's properly managed. Regime leaders need to face prosecution, and they have, but Iraq had too many lower-level Ba'athists to exclude them all indefinitely and still get any significant Sunni participation in the government.

At some point, the Iraqis have to learn to write off the past, and it won't be easy. The Arab tribal culture places a high premium on blood revenge for insults and attacks. The Iraqi government and the Coalition partners have to find ways to address that outside of the cycle of violence without undermining its deterrent effect until Iraqi security forces can keep the peace themselves. Arabs aren't the only people with this problem, either, as Westerners get reminded once a generation in the Balkans. That shows how long it takes to change paradigms, and the level of commitment needed to endure through a reconciliation.

This will not provide a complete solution to the problem, but it is a necessary first step. De-Baathification had its uses in the early days of occupation, but it has been a stumbling block for quite a while now. The Iraqis need to reconcile all of its internal factions to create a working civil society and to rebuild its infrastructure. Deliberately excluding the Sunnis only continues to divide the nation along sectarian lines. If they can agree to forgive all but those who crafted and carried out the worst of the atrocities, they could emulate South Africa and set their nation on a new course towards unity.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 17, 2006 8:43 AM

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