Iraq Government Weighs Amnesty for Insurgents

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will soon unveil the next stage in his plan to avoid an all-out civil war. President Bush says al-Maliki has discussed granting amnesty to insurgents. How might the government engage insurgents in the political process?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, will unveil the next stage in his multi-pronged effort to stop the country from sliding into civil war. It's what Maliki calls a national reconciliation plan, an effort to bring together the rival ethnic forces at the core of the conflict and bring an end to the bloodshed.

Details of the plan are expected to be unveiled soon. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Baghdad, and he joins us now. Phil, good morning.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Could you just put this into context for us? We seem to be seeing a new prime minister launching a major new initiative on multiple fronts. Is this an effort to turn Iraq around before it's too late?

REEVES: Oh, absolutely. I mean, developments have been coming thick and fast. First of all, just over a week ago, we had the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq; and then, on the same day, an important, crucial breakthrough within the government with the appointment of ministers for crucial security portfolios: Defense and Interior.

And that seems to have triggered this broad-based attempt to try now, in a concerted manner, to build credibility for this government. The unannounced visit this week to Baghdad by President Bush, promising to stick by Iraq, and then immediately afterwards, a major security operation in Baghdad involving tens of thousands of troops and police flooding the streets in force again today.

And so this unveiling of the national reconciliation program seems to be the next step in that process.

WERTHEIMER: What do you expect the program will contain?

REEVES: Well, we know of one concrete component, and that's the release of Iraqi prisoners. Maliki, the Prime Minister, said yesterday there'd be an amnesty for many prisoners, defining them as people who haven't shed Iraqi blood or committing what he described as crimes that undermine the security situation.

And that process has already begun. He committed himself to freeing several thousand people recently, and hundreds have been released in the last two weeks. And, indeed, several hundred more were released today from Abu Ghraib.

But on the wider front, Iraqi officials have been looking at models from South Africa and Bosnia, and it's thought the plan might include a kind of wider amnesty for insurgents.

WERTHEIMER: And who qualifies for some kind of amnesty?

REEVES: Well, that is a critical issue. I mean, in the last week, a lot of attention has been focused on al-Qaida and the killing of Zarqawi. Far less attention has been given to the Sunni Arab insurgency that has, for the last three years, been systematically killing the U.S. military, attacking supply lines, attacking the country's infrastructure, and so on. Now, many Iraqis, especially Sunni Arabs, regard those insurgents as resistance fighters defending the country against occupation. And one issue that's subject to speculation here right now is will the national reconciliation plan include an amnesty offer for them.

In other words, for insurgents who've only been attacking and killing American soldiers. It's a delicate subject, particularly, I would imagine, for the Bush administration, which, of course, officially categorizes such insurgencies as terrorists and may well be reluctant to see them - people who've, you know, killed American soldiers - walking free.

WERTHEIMER: Does he intend negotiating with the leadership of some of these insurgencies?

REEVES: Yes. Yesterday, he spoke about opening a dialogue with insurgents who've opposed the political process in Iraq, but who now want to join it. He says he's willing to start a dialogue with them. Again, it's not clear how he would define those groups. And he said he doesn't really know who they are.

And, of course, it's far from clear whether the insurgence leadership are, at this stage, interested in ending their war.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

NPR's Philip Reeves reporting from Baghdad.

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