Iraq's premier offers amnesty

U.S.-backed plan could free rebels, end ban on Baathists


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unveiled yesterday an ambitious U.S.-backed plan for bringing together ethnic and sectarian factions that leaves open the possibility of offering amnesty to some insurgents who have killed American or Iraqi troops.

The 28-point plan, presented to parliament yesterday, includes amnesty "for those not proven involved in crimes, terrorist activities and war crimes against humanity" - deliberately vague language hammered out during closed-door discussions involving Iraqis and Americans.

Al-Maliki, speaking to lawmakers packed inside the Baghdad Convention Center in the high-security Green Zone, said the plan "does not mean honoring and accepting killers and criminals."

However, it calls for releasing thousands of suspected insurgents who "pledge to condemn violence and vow to back" the Iraqi government. It advocates an end to rules that keep some former members of the once-ruling Baath Party out of political life, provided that they haven't committed any crimes.

"We realize that there is a segment of those who rebelled against the righteousness, rational and logical, and took Satan's route," said al-Maliki, who took over the premiership a month ago amid high expectations among war-weary countrymen and U.S. officials. "To those who want to build and reform, we present hands that carry olive branches."

Meanwhile, bombings and shootings killed at least 23 people yesterday in Iraq, and the U.S. military announced the death of an American soldier. The military said the soldier, from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, was killed a day earlier when a homemade bomb struck his convoy south of Baqouba.

An al-Qaida-led group posted video footage on the Internet yesterday showing the killings of three men said to be Russian hostages seized this month in Iraq, Iraqi and Arab television channels reported. The images, posted on a Web site often used by militants, reportedly showed two masked militants beheading one man and the shooting of another. It also showed the headless body of a third. The fate of a fourth hostage was unclear.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, speaking to reporters after yesterday's parliamentary session, did not rule out the possibility of pardons for insurgents who belonged to groups that took up arms against American forces.

Only "irreconcilables" - insurgents who fundamentally oppose the Iraqi government, either by fighting for a return of Baath Party dictatorship or for al-Qaida's vision of a second Islamic Caliphate - would be categorically excluded, Khalilzad said.

"All wars must come to an end, and hostility has to be replaced by reconciliation and difficult decisions have to be made by all," he said. "I'm optimistic that we can reach an understanding on this issue but also one that meets the requirements of justice."

Al-Maliki's plan, forged in close consultation with U.S. political and military leaders, is among the most far-reaching attempts yet by an Iraqi leader to bridge the religious and political chasms that emerged after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and reduce the country's violence.

But the plan's ambiguity on the amnesty issue quickly drew criticism from a critic of Bush administration policies on Iraq.

"For heaven's sake, we liberated that country," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, in a Fox television interview. "We got rid of a horrific dictator. We've paid a tremendous price. The idea that they should even consider talking about amnesty for people who have killed people who liberated their country is unconscionable."

Many Iraqi analysts and politicians wondered whether the plan would be effective in weakening the insurgency. Its most important features, first detailed in the June 17 issue of the Iraqi daily al-Mada, are designed to assuage Sunni Arab mistrust of the government. The moves would include the formation of committees to negotiate amnesties; steps to demobilize militias and to prevent abuses by U.S.-led forces; and a review of laws purging from public life former members of the Baath Party, which ruled under dictator Saddam Hussein.

But the plan raised immediate doubts from the country's minority Sunni Arabs, who dominated Iraq under Hussein and now lead the insurgency. Many Sunnis said the plan did not go far enough in heeding their demands, especially for the setting of a timetable for the departure of U.S. troops, which many continue to call an occupying power.

"What do you want me to tell the honorable people? Not to hate the occupation?" said Sheik Ali Hatam Sulayman, a leader of the Albu Asaf tribe in the insurgent stronghold of Anbar province. "I can't. I'm sorry."

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