Amnesty a hot button issue in Irag

The very idea seems almost unthinkable: pardon Iraqi insurgents who have ravaged the country for three years.

But amnesty _ part of settling with the past and looking forward _ has figured in war and reconciliation throughout history. In Iraq, defense officials and analysts say, the biggest issues may only be deciding who will get it, and perhaps when.

“I don’t think the Iraqi government is in a position to win a decisive victory _ and probably the insurgents aren’t either,” said defense analyst Ted Galen Carpenter of the libertarian Cato Institute. “The willingness to let bygones be bygones … would seem to be the most attractive alternative.”

Around the world, many have tried it.

After America’s own Civil War, “even the top leaders were not taken out and executed,” Carpenter said. “They were simply disqualified from holding public office _ a minor penalty for conducting a rebellion that killed 600,000 people.”

After World War II, there were war crimes charges against some, but the rest “went back to becoming citizens of their country,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said while arguing in favor of Iraqi amnesty.

In other cases:

_The 2002 cease-fire in Angola’s 27-year war included an invitation for tens of thousands of rebels and their families to report to demobilization points across the African nation.

_El Salvador’s legislature in 1993 pardoned all who committed political murders and other crimes during its 12-year civil war.

Protesters shouted “Justice, yes! Amnesty, no!” on passage of that plan _ proposed on the eve of a United Nations-sponsored report blaming most of the war’s atrocities on Salvadoran state security forces and rightist death squads.

Each society has had to ask itself how much forgiveness it’s ready to offer.

“I would argue that Iraq is not there yet,” said Zahir Janmohamed, an Amnesty International USA director for North Africa and the Middle East.

Iraqis are “scrambling to figure out how to enfranchise more people in the political process,” he said of struggles among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. But that shouldn’t be done, he said, “at the expense of … international human rights law and … justice.”

Pursuing justice, Rwanda has rejected the idea of amnesty for the 100-day 1994 genocide in which guilt was widespread: Government forces orchestrated it, neighbors carried it out against neighbor and even nuns and priests abetted it when victims unsuccessfully sought sanctuary in churches.

Giving amnesty doesn’t always accomplish all that’s hoped for.

Over the past decade, Russia has tried a number of amnesties with separatist Chechnya. Most large-scale fighting has ended but regular hit-and-run attacks continue and the insurgency has spread to other parts of the North Caucasus region.

In the Arab world, efforts at truth and reconciliation in the South African post-apartheid tradition include an amnesty program for Algeria’s years of violence. But Iraq’s case is far different, said Janmohamed.

“A degree of peacetime is essential for there to be discussions about amnesty or truth and reconciliation, and that simply does not exist in Iraq,” he said.

That’s one reason it was important for the Senate to go on record with a nonbinding resolution June 20 against amnesty for those attacking U.S. troops, said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“One of the reasons that you don’t want to talk about amnesty in the middle of a war is that you give the idea to people who are killing your troops that they can continue to kill your troops and still have a hope for amnesty,” Levin said.

The Senate voted after reports indicated Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would propose pardoning killers of Americans.

Al-Maliki later said his plan would exclude terrorists and those who had killed Iraqi or foreign soldiers. He hasn’t provided details, and some question how eligibility would be determined and whether the killers could be identified.

U.S. commanders are consulting with Iraqis on amnesty details and plan to help establish a program for eventually melding some insurgents, militiamen and former prisoners into Iraq’s security forces, something many other nations also have done.

Others also have given pardoned fighters training for new jobs and stipends for a transition period.

Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is in charge of training Iraqi security forces, said last week that there’s “a sense of inevitability” about the idea that there will have to be some sort of amnesty if Iraq is to have “truly national reconciliation.”

Without commenting on the wisdom of amnesty or other details of al-Maliki’s 24-part reconciliation plan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that now that it’s been announced, it’s open for Iraqi debate.

“Other countries have engaged in reconciliation processes of various types,” Rumsfeld told a Pentagon press conference last week. He said it would be “a good thing” if Iraqis could do the same “and then go forward.”


Pauline Jelinek has covered foreign and security issues for 18 years.

© 2006 The Associated Press