November 12, 2007

Another Step Towards Reconciliation?

One of the more remarkable stories of the "surge" has been the alliance of native insurgencies with American and Iraqi forces to drive out foreign terrorists. Everyone understands this as a marriage of convenience. The insurgents made the mistake of allying themselves with the foreigners and discovered that the American infidels had much more respect for Iraq than the Islamist extremists did. After experiencing the brutality of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the native insurgents decided to cast their lot with the US and the elected Iraqi government, at least temporarily.

Nouri al-Maliki has broached an amnesty plan that may keep them in the fold permanently:

During an address in which he described the changes in Iraqi security as "remarkable" and pronounced the country "revived," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday announced his latest push for an amnesty program for insurgents, a plan that he said would allow Iraq to move past sectarian warfare.

At a news conference near his office in the Green Zone, Maliki sketched a broad outline of what the amnesty could entail. He insisted that people found guilty of murder or other acts of terrorism would not be pardoned but said the amnesty would cover many of the "misguided" people who cooperated with insurgent groups though had not committed "major" crimes. "All those people will be released," he said.

"This is a step for bringing back the unity of the Iraqi people," Maliki said.

More than 25,000 people are in U.S. custody in Iraq, and tens of thousands more are in Iraqi detention centers. Maliki declined to estimate how many would be released if his plan is implemented. He said he has asked the U.S. military for a report within two weeks on the prison population and candidates for release, although it is not clear whether Maliki has the authority to force the Americans to release certain detainees if there is a disagreement.

As the report notes, the Iraqis have discussed amnesty before. It has come to naught, however, while the sectarian violence remained strong. The various factions had too much bad blood between them to agree on a formula for release. With violence dropping to new lows, the time may have arrived when all sides can agree on a general amnesty for those who have not committed terrorist acts or murder personally.

The Maliki government has received a lot of bad press over its sloth in pursuing reconciliation. Three months ago, Maliki began meeting with key Sunni tribal leaders in an effort to build trust. The Sunnis especially want to see amnesty for detainees, as it mostly impacts their communities. This amnesty could go a long way towards reconciliation, building enough trust to make progress on oil revenue and local governance issues.

Insurgents who fought against AQI and on the side of the Maliki government and US military will not wait for long to see some quid pro quo for their efforts. Maliki has to show them some reason to remain engaged and to transform themselves into political rather than militia movements. Murderers and terrorists should remain imprisoned, but the rest should get a second look as part of a general reconciliation.

Addendum: Speaking of murderers and terrorists, the Maliki government wants the US to transfer a few people into their custody, and so far the US has not proven cooperative. Three men, including "Chemical Ali" Hassan Majeed, have death sentences upheld by the Iraqi Supreme Court but cannot be executed as the US retains custody. Maliki wants the men released from American detention so that the three can be executed according to Iraqi law. The US needs to honor that request, and quickly.


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