Iraqi fighters: beat 'em or forgive 'em?

An offer of amnesty has as much potential to quell the conflicts as more troops on the streets.

It's quite understandable for Iraq watchers to focus on security, especially when killings reach 100 a day. But with the war now mainly a fight for Baghdad between Arab Sunnis and Shiites, another focus should be on a new plan to reconcile the two sides with an amnesty.

An offer of forgiveness was made last month by Iraq's new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. On Saturday, an Iraqi national commission on reconciliation, made up of leaders of various political and religious stripes, met for the first time – although some Sunni leaders did not attend. They say the amnesty didn't go far enough to include insurgents who have killed Iraqis or foreign troops.

Final details of the plan will be as critical for peace as the number of US and Iraqi troops in the capital. Amnesty is one more step in an attempt to unify Iraq through political compromise – which will be far more effective than the use of force. Bullets don't win hearts. But openheartedness can.

A big step toward reconciliation was achieved only this year with a balanced, elected government under a popular constitution. Compromise is still needed on remaining Sunni demands, such as fair distribution of Iraq's oil wealth. A final step in ending the insurgency and disbanding local militias will be amnesty. Next month, the Arab League will help sponsor a conference to reconcile the religious and ethnic groups in Iraq.

Other nations that have gone through civil conflict can provide different blueprints for Iraq in balancing a demand for justice with a need for reconciliation. Post-conflict amnesty, such as that granted to losing soldiers after the American Civil War or World War II, is much easier than forgiveness during a conflict.

Iraq will need to tread carefully in choosing which insurgents should be punished or forgiven. Right now the offer is extended only to "those who have not taken part in criminal and terrorist acts and war crimes and crimes against humanity." That may exclude many insurgents but not the thousands of supporters working behind the scenes. The government claims seven Sunni military groups have asked for more details. That's a breakthrough not only for the Sunnis but for the dominant Shiite powerbrokers who have refused to talk to the militants.

At the least, such openings provide more information to the government on the types and numbers of insurgents. Shiite militias, too, will need to step forward and ask for amnesty, a step that Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, as Iraq's most powerful figure, should encourage.

It seems impossible right now that many militants will give up their arms anytime soon. Just look at the slow pace of disarmament in Northern Ireland. But as Prime Minister Maliki said, an amnesty is "the only bridge and crossing point through which we can reach the safe shore that unites the sons of the Iraqi people, ends the violent situation, provides stability and puts an end to all discriminatory ideas, whether of sect, political party, or race."

Strange as it may sound in the midst of ongoing vendettas that are bordering on civil war, Mr. Maliki has asked Iraqis to unite their splintered nation with "brotherhood and love." For Arab Sunnis and Shiites to see their own futures tied together is a leap of faith. Having an amnesty "bridge" may help them do it.

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