Iraq's prime minister, less than a week after taking power, may offer amnesty to insurgents and could extend it to those who killed American troops in an apparent bid to lure Saddam Hussein loyalists from their campaign of violence.
A spokesman for Iyad Allawi went as far as to suggest attacks on U.S. troops over the past year were legitimate acts of resistance — a sign of the new government's desire to distance itself from the 14-month U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
"If he (a guerrilla) was in opposition against the Americans, that will be justified because it was an occupation force," the spokesman, Georges Sada, said Saturday. "We will give them freedom."
Choking the brutal 14-month insurgency is the No. 1 priority of Allawi's government, and the prime minister is expected to make a number of security-related policy announcements in coming days. Besides the amnesty plan, those include the resurrection of Iraq's death penalty and an emergency law that sets curfews in Iraq's trouble spots, Sada said.
The amnesty plan is still in the works. A full pardon for insurgents who killed Americans is not a certainty, Sada told The Associated Press. Allawi's main goal is to "start everything from new" by giving a second chance to rebel fighters who hand in their weapons and throw their weight behind the new government.
"There is still heavy discussion about this," said Sada, interviewed in the prime minister's office. He said the U.S. Embassy has encouraged Allawi to try creative solutions to end the insurgency as long as they don't infringe on human rights.
Analysts say Allawi's plan is critical to ending a grinding rebellion in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland that has shown no sign of bowing to the U.S. military. Especially worrying for Allawi's government is recent evidence that shows secular fighters — ex-members of Saddam's Baath Party — forming an alliance with radical Islamists.
Some type of amnesty is needed to coax Iraqi nationalist guerrillas to the government's side, while separating them from fighters using terrorist-style bombings, experts say.
"It's hard to imagine any way forward other than co-opting people who had previously fought against the United States, either as part of Saddam's army, part of the insurgency, or both," said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Allawi needs to split the opposition into two groups: those he can co-opt and those he must confront."
Amnesties can be tricky. If the offer is too strict and few rebels accept, it will have little effect. But too lenient a deal could destabilize the government by bringing criminals and radicals into the government, said James Dobbins, a veteran diplomat who served as the Bush administration's special envoy for Afghanistan.
Amnesties have succeeded in many countries. Militants once considered outlaws landed top jobs in government. In Kenya, South Africa and Cyprus they even became president. Some landed the Nobel Peace Prize.
"Not to push the point too far, but George Washington led the American insurgency and went on to become our first president," Dobbins said. "If Allawi and his government can't assume the nationalist mantle in the eyes of the Iraqi population, they can't prevail against the insurgency."
Dobbins said he believed Washington would not block Allawi's pardoning of Iraqi insurgents, noting that there is plenty of precedent for such reconciliation. The United States never sought to prosecute surrendering Germans, Koreans or Vietnamese who had killed U.S. soldiers. He said he doubted the United States intends to prosecute the many Afghan and Iraqi prisoners it holds as enemy combatants.
Besides, there is wide acknowledgment that U.S. occupation chief L. Paul Bremer's disbanding of Iraq's army and security services was a mistake, and forced people into fighting the occupation for money and revenge, Sada said.
"Some people were cheated, some were misled. Some did this because they had no salaries, no food, no bread," Sada said.
There appears to be little controversy about pardoning rebels who were not actual killers of U.S. or Iraqi security forces. Sada said it was "no problem" to amnesty rebel financiers and those storing heavy weapons in their homes.
It remains to be seen whether many hard-core Iraqi insurgents, numbering around 5,000 according to a recent U.S. estimate, will take Allawi's expected offer. One former army officer who described himself as a "helper to the resistance" in Fallujah said Allawi's plan would find little traction because his government is seen as illegitimate.
"I do not want to return to the new Iraqi army and be put in a situation where I have to open fire on my countrymen in order to defend the Americans," said Mohammed al-Janabi, a former colonel in the disbanded Iraqi army.
"The goal of this offer is to divide the resistance. They want to isolate the honest patriots from the Islamic Mujahedeen — in other words divide and rule — and this is not going to happen," al-Janabi said. "As for Allawi and (President Ghazi) al-Yawer, they are taking orders from the new American ambassador after the departure of their former master, Bremer. They are helping the Americans steal our oil and they will be punished."
Such holdouts, Sada warned, face the full force of the U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces.
"He should expect to be killed. Those who continue fighting the government can expect anything ranging from prison to the death penalty," he said.
Last week, Allawi publicly warned Baathists to stop backing the insurgency.
One former colonel in Saddam Hussein's secret police said he and other former Baathists would welcome any amnesty. The man, now a Mosul taxi driver who asked that he simply be called Abu Hani, said the Islamist fighters would be unlikely to accept Allawi's offer.
"In my opinion, Allawi and al-Yawer are working to salvage the country from the ordeal. They are going in the right direction," Abu Hani said. "It seems that the new rulers of Iraq want to fix some of the mistakes committed earlier, such as the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the security bodies."