The Debate Over Granting Amnesty to Iraqi Insurgents

The Debate Over Granting Amnesty to Iraqi Insurgents

A firestorm of criticism followed the recent proposal by the Iraqi government to grant amnesty to insurgents. But experts say conflicts like the one raging in Iraq rarely end in clear-cut military victories, and an amnesty offer makes political sense.

June 22, 2006 11:04 am (EST)

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has proposed to grant some insurgents limited amnesty and pardon those who renounce violence. The goodwill gesture, part of the prime minister’s twenty-four-point program, aims to bring about national reconciliation and lure disaffected Sunnis into the political fold. But some U.S. politicians decry any attempt by Baghdad to make amends with insurgents who have American blood on their hands. The recent death of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi offers the Iraqi government an opening to exploit a perceived rift between Iraq’s homegrown and foreign insurgents. The offer of amnesty also coincides with Maliki’s recent release of hundreds of Sunni prisoners and his decision to revise the draconian rules of de-Baathification, expected later this summer. Experts say these efforts are necessary to mend the Sunni-Shiite rift and negotiate a resolution to the three-year-old conflict.

How would amnesty work?

Amnesty would only apply to native Iraqi insurgents and their cohorts—bomb makers, safe haven providers, et al.—who have not targeted Iraqi civilians or engaged in suicide bombings. Foreign jihadis and so-called Iraqi "dead-enders" would not be eligible. How the government would differentiate among the various strands of the insurgency remains unclear. Amnesty would entail insurgents coming forward, turning over their weapons, and renouncing violence in exchange for the promise of immunity from prosecution or imprisonment. Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, speaking to CNN, says amnesty is aimed at insurgents "still carrying arms [who] might have done some minor mistakes in storing some arms or allowing some terrorists to stay overnight or... give shelter to some of these insurgents."

Would amnesty be offered to insurgents accused of killing Americans?

Probably, experts say. "Wars normally end with amnesties," says Stephen Biddle, a CFR Senior Defense Fellow. "Moreover, wars normally end with amnesties for those who killed your guys." It also will be hard to verify which members of the insurgency are responsible for acts of violence against U.S. forces. "I have no idea how one differentiates that," says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute. For example, would an Iraqi engineer of an improvised explosive device (IED) know whether his bomb struck an American convoy or not? Despite Rubaie’s earlier pledge that "we will never give amnesty to those who have killed American soldiers," a senior Pentagon official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, says all insurgents, including those guilty of killing Americans, will likely be eligible for amnesty. "They will get the exact same treatment as a German soldier at the end of World War II," says the official. "We didn’t prosecute the hundreds of thousands of German soldiers."

A senior Pentagon official says the amnesty offer has the tacit approval of the White House and may have been initiated in Washington, not Baghdad. "Maliki doesn’t sneeze without our permission," says the official.

Is this the first time amnesty has been offered to Iraqi insurgents?

No. "There have been a variety of amnesty ideas on the table," Biddle says, "but this one is more sweeping than most." The Pentagon official confirms "feelers" have been put out to Sunni insurgents before. "The problem is never before was there a government that included Sunnis and appeared to represent the interests of Sunnis." As such, he says, "the Iraqi government has more political leverage than ever before." In January, reports surfaced that the U.S. military began negotiating with Sunni Arab members of the Iraqi insurgency but no grand bargain was apparently reached.

Can amnesty work?

Many experts believe so. "I don’t see how you can have a political deal where you can separate out those in the insurgency unless you’re willing to say to some ’You’re not going to be prosecuted or put in jail,’" says Gregory Gause, a Middle East expert at the University of Vermont. Some experts point to South Africa as a model, where those guilty of apartheid were brought in as part of the reconciliation process. Others point to the British offer of conditional amnesty to Malayan insurgents in the 1950s. Judith Yaphe (PDF), a senior fellow at the National Defense University, says amnesty will only work if it is backed up with a show of strength. "What you say is ’This is the first day of the rest of your life,’" she says. "’If we discover you have broken your faith, then you will be tried and everything we have will be used against you.’" She adds that any insurgent who breaks the amnesty rules should be punished swiftly and publicly. "We will not tolerate backsliders."

Will amnesty, by itself, be enough to bring Sunnis into the political fold?

stIt’s unlikely. "Any sort of grand compromise would have to have a lot more in it," Biddle says. "I’m sure insurgents would want involvement in the government, a variety of guarantees to ensure the safety of the Sunni community. If you’re going to reintegrate them into society, you will have to bring them into government and the military and give them jobs." However, Reuel Marc Gerecht disagrees. He says force, not more incentives, is the only thing that will motivate Sunnis to lay down their weapons. "The best trick is not the carrot but the stick," Gerecht says. "I don’t think you can bribe Sunnis. Amnesty is only going to be enough if they assume they are going to lose sooner rather than later."

Will amnesty reduce the violence?

Not immediately, experts say. Nor will amnesty redress Sunnis’ concerns of being underrepresented in Iraqi politics. "It’s not a solution to all the problems," says Yaphe. "When you’re 20 percent of the population, nothing is going to make them the majority." What’s needed in addition to amnesty, says Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, is "how to revisit the political power structure so [the Sunnis] don’t feel like humiliated third-class citizens." The offer of amnesty also assumes the Sunni insurgency operates as a unified negotiating bloc, something Biddle says is unlikely. Further, it assumes that Sunni politicians in power wield influence over insurgent leaders. "We don’t have a good sense of the political balance of forces in the Sunni community," Gause says. "This will be one of those tests. Can these guys from the Committee on Muslim Scholars [and other major Sunni parties], who say they want to play ball politically, bring Sunnis into the process?"

How else might Maliki’s government reach out to Sunnis?

One suggestion, floated by a few experts, entails incorporating insurgents into the Iraqi security forces, or, as Gause puts it, "Treat them like they’re [the Iraqi government] treating Shiite militias." The British, while fighting Malayan guerillas, created separate units exclusively of former insurgents. The guerilla wing of the African National Congress was incorporated into the South African Army in the early 1990s. In Iraq, of course, the goal is for insurgents to shift their allegiance from their rebel or tribal affiliations over to the Iraqi government. This approach may also allow the interior and defense ministries to better monitor their actions. But Gause says this plan is fraught with risk, given the sectarian violence perpetrated by Shiite militia members who have joined Iraq’s police forces. Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, speaking at CFR, says insurgents, both foreign and homegrown, have already infiltrated the police forces in large numbers.

Does the United States favor the amnesty offer?

Not publicly, though a senior Pentagon official says the amnesty offer has the tacit approval of the White House and may even have been initiated by Washington, not Baghdad. "Maliki doesn’t sneeze without our permission," says the official. However, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have called for the amnesty offer to be reversed. "The mere idea that this proposal may go forward is an insult to the brave men and women who have died in the name of Iraqi freedom," Senator Henry Reid (D-NV) told the Senate chamber. Experts say much of the anti-amnesty bluster from U.S. lawmakers reflects the country’s souring mood on the war, particularly with 2,500 U.S. soldiers killed in combat, as well as the upcoming elections in November. "There’s a huge incentive of making a fiery speech that gets broadcast back to their districts," Gause says. "Everyone is posturing. It’s depressing, frankly."

Could Washington try to block amnesty efforts?

Yes, but it would be an unwise move, experts say. "If we try to kill it we will be in even more disfavor than we are now," Yaphe says. "It would come off as heavy-handed and go a long way to destroy the credibility of the current government." Still, the Iraqi government official who leaked the amnesty details to the Washington Post was reportedly sacked, highlighting the influence Washington continues to wield over Iraqi politics.

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