THE NEW IRAQI government is considering giving amnesty to some insurgents, including those who committed attacks against the United States, other coalition forces and the Iraqi military. It's understandable that many U.S. soldiers and other Americans would find the idea offensive. Nevertheless, it is critical for the Bush administration to quietly back the proposal behind the scenes.
The details of the amnesty haven't been announced, and the details are crucial. It would be a grave mistake to offer amnesty to the foreign fighters who have poured into Iraq to help with — or foment — the insurgency. But amnesty for former Baathists and other Sunni rejectionists could help divide them from their Al Qaeda comrades, to the benefit of Iraq and the United States. However distasteful, some sort of amnesty is a prerequisite for Iraqi reconciliation. U.S. troops will leave one day, and the Iraqis will have to find a way to live together. If the United States wants to succeed in Iraq, it must put Iraqi interests first.
The killing of the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, has created an unprecedented opportunity for the new Iraqi government. Zarqawi triggered resentment not just because he slaughtered civilians indiscriminately but because he hogged international attention, eclipsing his home-grown jihadist competitors.
Moreover, although he controlled only a segment of the Iraqi insurgency, Zarqawi had an aura of invincibility. His death gives the Iraqi government a chance to divide and co-opt the insurgents, exploiting whatever intelligence was gained in the Zarqawi raids and whatever disarray his death has created to score more military gains.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki enjoys more legitimacy than its predecessors, and for the first time, it includes bona fide Sunni representatives. But it needs to change the pessimistic mood in Iraq while retaining the goodwill of its American backers. As a sovereign government, Iraq has every right to set the terms of the amnesty, but it should proceed with caution.
An amnesty aimed only at non-Al Qaeda insurgents would deepen the divide between the foreign and Iraqi fighters. On the other hand, an amnesty for those who perpetrated the hideous and indiscriminate bombings of mosques and marketplaces would both condone terror and validate the insurgents' cause. Anyone involved in recruiting suicide bombers, or planning or helping execute bombing attacks, should not qualify for amnesty.
Americans will find it repugnant that those who blew up our soldiers may get off scot-free. But ironically, that outcome is in our best interests. An Iraqi government that insists, in the face of American objections, on implementing an amnesty would demonstrate to its people, especially the Sunnis, that it is not a stooge of Washington, that it is capable of acting independently of the Bush administration. And the stronger and more independent the Iraqi government, the more likely that U.S. soldiers can come home.
Amnesties have succeeded in ending insurgencies in many other countries because they bring the rebels in from the cold and undermine their support structure. Algeria, which experienced some of the most violent civil strife of the modern era, offered repeated amnesties, and today, its nightmare appears to be ending. Turkey, which has refused even to consider a meaningful amnesty for its Kurdish rebels, is engaged in a seemingly unending low-intensity conflict.
Amnesties alone are not a panacea. There will always be die-hards for whom the cause is too sacred or for whom violence is a raison d'etre. Still, every militant has an extended family network. These relatives are unwittingly drafted into the conflict; they are likely to worry about their sons' or brothers' fates, to be extremely antagonistic toward the authority pursuing them and to help fighters evade their pursuers. A meaningful amnesty, accompanied by a counterinsurgency campaign, can turn these relatives into allies. They will, often for their own sakes, put pressure on fighters to take advantage of such an offer.
In Iraq, the jihadists Zarqawi trained will not lay down their arms, but their Iraqi brethren may do so — and betray the foreigners to save their own skins. Even a few such victories would give the counterinsurgency momentum and the Maliki government breathing space. A decisive victory against the Iraqi insurgency could take a decade or more. But Washington and Baghdad have demonstrated that they can be allies for the long haul. Washington can best demonstrate its commitment to the new government by accepting an Iraqi amnesty that allows Maliki to give his foes a reason to lay down their arms.