Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki put forward a long-awaited national reconciliation plan on Sunday that is meant to bring Iraqis what they crave above all else: security.
Mr. Maliki laid out the 24-point plan to the Iraqi parliament, offering an "olive branch" to some enemies of his US-backed government that will include a limited amnesty, talks with non-Al Qaeda insurgent groups, and the disbanding of party-linked militias. But he gave few details on how to implement the initiative.
"Reconciliation and national dialogue does not mean honoring and reaching out to the killers and criminals – no and a thousand nos," Maliki told Iraqi lawmakers. "We know [some have] followed the devil's road and were embraced by the forces of darkness, and the mukhabarat [Saddam Hussein's intelligence network] will continue to commit crimes."
Previous leaders appointed or elected since the 2003 invasion have made similar sweeping security promises, only to fall far short.
Maliki's challenge is two-fold: ending an insurgency that has pushed the US death toll above 2,500; and reining in militias largely responsible for a spike in sectarian violence that took some 6,000 lives in the first five months of this year.
The effort began with the release of 2,500 prisoners, most of them Sunni, from Iraqi prisons in recent weeks. The releases, and leaks that indicated that Maliki's amnesty would include hard-core elements, has raised some US eyebrows.
But Maliki is hoping to build on the momentum created by the killing on June 7 of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the hundreds of subsequent US and Iraqi raids aimed at his network.
"[O]ur previous fight against [the terrorists] will continue unabated," Maliki vowed Sunday. Security forces should play "no role in political affairs, and the militias will have to be disbanded."
The strategy is to include minority Sunnis – disenfranchised by the ousting of Mr. Hussein – in order to narrow the base of the Sunni-led insurgency. While US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has pushed for months for a greater Sunni role, the Shiite majority has grumbled.
"The national reconciliation will be difficult to implement in the near term," Mr. Khalilzad said Sunday. "But in the longer period of time it is the right strategic move."
Several US senators expressed concern yesteday that the plan could lead to amnesty for insurgents who had killed American troops.
"To think of the lives that we have put on the line for the future of this nation and that those who are responsible for killing our soldiers would not be held accountable, is not acceptable," Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic Whip, said on ABC's "This Week."
Sen. John Warner, Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said on Fox News Sunday that the plan "was a positive step forward."
He said he was personally opposed to amnesty. But, he noted, "I want the Iraqi people to take this decision unto themselves and make it correctly. And I hope it comes out, as you say, no amnesty for anyone who committed an act of violence, of war crimes."
Iraq's Shiites field two large militias, and are accused of mounting uniformed "death squads" out of the Ministry of Interior against Sunnis. It took weeks for Maliki, a Shiite of the Dawa Party, to fill top security posts. He gave the Defense Ministry to Abdul-Qader Mohammed Jassim al-Mifarji, a Sunni and former Army general.
Even a 12-day-old operation in Baghdad, vaunted as one of the largest clampdowns since 2003, has barely stemmed the bloodshed. At least six people were killed Sunday in a market bombing; bodies are found daily on the street.
"Everyone you want to arrest belongs to one of the militias," says a senior Iraqi police officer, who asked not to be named. "You arrest a bad guy, and they get on the phone [to get released].... What we are doing is sitting and watching, while bad guys are filling the streets. The government must do something, or the country will be at zero."
Some 20 to 30 bodies arrive daily at the Baghdad morgue; kidnappings of Iraqis ebb, only to be followed by as many as 100 in a day. Maliki extended a prayer-time curfew Friday when police checkpoints were attacked by insurgents in central Baghdad.
"The Sunnis are ready to cooperate with the government," says Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, and an adviser to President Jalal Talabani.
"They can't solve the security situation by force, or ... [by] surrounding cities or capturing people," says Mr. Dulaimi, adding that the Hussein-era military disbanded by US fiat should be reinstated. "Negotiation, dialogue, good thinking, and logic, and solve the jobless problem, and then you can give security."
Dulaimi also criticized detainment procedures. "Violence leads to violence. The prisons are schools for criminals. If you send innocent people to prison, they ... graduate as criminals," he says. "A high percentage of detainees are innocent ... it makes the violence stronger."
Maliki said that a priority would be better services, especially in Sunni areas, such as Anbar province in western Iraq, where the insurgency is strongest. Insecurity has sucked away billions of dollars in reconstruction aid, and made completing many projects impossible.
Iraqis say that they have just a few hours of electricity a day, despite temperatures that soar to 115 degrees. A lack of water and jobs has eroded optimism.
Success of Maliki's plan "will depend on how serious the new government is," says Sunni politician Alaa Maki, of the Iraqi Islamic Party. "We are inspired that most political groups are serious in dealing with this issue. I'm toward the optimistic side...."
Maliki noted that his plan was "open to all who want to enter the political process to build their country and save their people as long as they did not commit crimes."
Militants linked to political parties, most of which now hold seats in parliament and at the cabinet level, may need persuading to give up arms that for much of the past three years have offered one of the few guarantees of safety for their communities.
Among them is the Mahdi Army of anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"The Mahdi Army now are protecting Baghdad, and have a very good relationship with the Iraqi Army, and help them keep security," says a Mahdi Army militiamanticking through a string of black prayer beads with his thumb.
"Since the uprising in Sadr City [Baghdad's Shiite slum] and Najaf [in 2004], they have given 10,000 martyrs," he says, exaggerating the death toll, "so it is not an easy thing to disarm the Mahdi Army."