Politics & Policy

Amnesty in Iraq

Experts weigh in.

Editor’s note: In recent days, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has proposed an amnesty plan for some Iraqi insurgents. Is this as bad as it sounds? Is it unavoidable? What can/should the U.S. do about it? We asked a group of Iraq experts.



#ad# Ali Al-Zahid

Since coming to power, Prime Minister Maliki has won many new friends in Iraq.  At the same time, he has made a number of enemies in his own party, which is upset with some aspects of his newly proposed plan.  Most of Prime Minister Maliki’s plan has been around for a while, but the amnesty is a contentious issue.  This could never have been proposed by Allawi, with his murky past and his ties to the Baath Party.  But since it is from Maliki, it will be given more serious consideration.

The plan is worded in such a way as to exclude al Qaeda and followers of the Baath Party, which means it includes only a small portion of the insurgents.  But it will serve to exacerbate the divisions among the insurgent groups and clarify their intentions.

Nevertheless, the best strategy would be for Maliki to break the unity of the terrorist groups, and then to destroy them one by one.  The simple fact is that the democratic rebuilding of Iraq will never be carried out by people who formerly cut off the heads of those who disagreed with them.

As for the United States, any interference at this point could be interpreted negatively by the Iraqi people.  Supporting the plan half-heartedly would lead to an Allawi-effect, while not supporting the plan would be disastrous.  So the U.S. should adopt a “wait and see” attitude, expressing support for what the Iraqi government chooses to do, but not making a big deal about it. 

Ali Al-Zahid is a member of the new Iraquna think tank. Born in 1978, he was imprisoned in 1982 after his father made critical statements against the Baath regime.

Kerry Dupont

The questions that Prime Minister Maliki’s plan raises are important ones, as important in the long run for America as for Iraq. One of the main questions being, how do we accept that these groups, some of which have caused great harm to our military, now be given a ‘free pass’ so to speak? What then, have we been fighting for?

Therein, many Iraqis and Americans believe, is the answer. What we have been fighting for in Iraq, really, is the stability for Iraq to establish a free society. If, in fact, this allows for some security in the short term, then it will allow for more terrorists of all types to be rooted out in the long term. The reality in Baghdad is similar to New Orleans almost a year ago. Secure the area first. Then you can go about an orderly rebuilding. Until then, resources will continue to waste, and that includes our most valuable resource, the sons and daughters of our country that are there.

What to say to those who have lost loved ones to fighting these groups and now see them being granted a place in the political process? If a group that considered themselves legitimate “resistors of the occupation” are willing to change their stance, it means exactly that losses were not in vain. After all, aren’t we always trying to make people understand that the only reason we go to war is to win a peace? The mission has for some time now been: work for change first and engage militarily if forced. In a land where grudges are held for centuries and mistrust runs deep, if a Shia-dominated government can be forgiving enough to listen to what hardcore Sunni and former Baathist groups might be ready to say, so can we. 

Kerry Dupont is a consultant for organizations conducting work in Iraq and the Middle East. She has spent time in various parts of Iraq, working with Iraqi counterparts on educational projects and civil-society activities, covering both the Arabic and Kurdish regions. She blogs at http://literalthoughts.blogspot.com.

James S. Robbins

An amnesty plan may be an effective means of splitting off some of the less-committed insurgents, particularly those who are motivated by anti-Coalition sentiments rather than anti-government or pro-jihad sentiments. Also not extending the proposed amnesty to the foreign fighters makes sense, since it will drive a wedge between them and the rest of the insurgency. Amnesty and reconciliation programs have been effective in other conflicts, though they do not in and of themselves end violence. And since the Iraqi government is a sovereign entity, they are free to handle these matters in the way they feel would be most useful. However, since many if not most insurgents prefer to remain anonymous, they would not need to be granted amnesty to get on with their lives, they could just stop doing what they are doing and the government would be none the wiser. For those who do take the amnesty and publicly agree to stop committing violent actions, they would then have to deal with the popular Iraqi extra-judicial methods of dispute resolution, such as death squads. As well the foreign fighters might seek to make examples of those who betray the cause. So while the amnesty program is a useful act of good faith on the part of the government, for the average insurgent it neither addresses the issues that caused them to take up arms, nor promises safety once they agree to stop killing people. Quel dommage…

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.

Bill Roggio

The Iraqi government’s proposed reconciliation program has elicited concern within some circles that insurgents who have killed American soldiers will evade punishment. The plan is clear that the amnesty applies to “detainees not involved in terrorist acts, war crimes or crimes against humanity…” Al Qaeda and the violent elements of the domestic Iraqi Islamist terrorist groups will not be offered amnesty under this plan, nor are they likely to accept the terms of reconciliation.

The fact is that a reconciliation plan will need to provide insurgents with a way to eschew the violence. The amnesty is aimed at giving the foot soldiers and mid-level functionaries (weapons smugglers, support cells, and facilitators) a way to lay down their arms and prevent the deaths of further Iraqi civilians and American, Coalition, and Iraqis soldiers.

National reconciliation is a political settlement to an insurgency, and has been successfully implemented to end insurgencies throughout the world. If implemented properly, it will produce a clear rift between domestic, nationalist elements of the insurgency and of the al Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunnah, and the Islamist terrorists groups in the Mujahideen Shura Council. This will level a strategic defeat for al Qaeda. Their image as the one true voice of the Arab and Muslim world will be shattered, as their own fellow Sunni travelers will have rejected their ideology in favor of a political settlement with the democratically elected government of Iraq. Seven insurgent groups have already agreed to the terms, and twelve more are seriously considering the offer.

There has also been talk the reconciliation plan will limit offensive military operations against the insurgency, but the text states “military operations [are to] take place in accordance with judicial orders and do not breach human rights.” This is merely an assurance the insurgents who have agreed to reconciliation will not be rounded up after pledging cooperation with the government. The Coalition should not and will not cede the ability to strike at the Islamist terrorists when the opportunity arises.

– Bill Roggio is co-editor of the Counterterrorism Blog and co-chairman of the Counterterrorism Foundation.

Michael Rubin

Iraq is a sovereign country, but that does not mean its government’s decisions are always wise or above criticism. The amnesty is a bad idea. The conventional wisdom that amnesty quells insurgency is unsupported by evidence. Insurgencies end when they are defeated, not when their participants win immunity. Peruvian terror died away because Lima took an unforgiving attitude toward the Shining Path. In contrast, each Israeli amnesty of Palestinian terrorists sparked new waves of terrorism. When the current Turkish government granted a partial amnesty to PKK terrorists based in Iraq, the PKK responded by launching once again its murderous campaign. After all, amnesties prior to victory are signs of weakness, not compassion.


In Iraq, the amnesty plan will embolden insurgents and terrorists, not pacify them. The U.S. press talks about Sunni insurgents. Within Iraq today, Shiite militias are just as violent and corrosive to society. In recent weeks, for example, Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers have targeted Kurdish civilians in Kirkuk. Under the amnesty plan, Shiite militiamen — some of whom are guilty of murdering Western civilians like Steven Vincent and Fern Holland — will walk free. The broader context in Iraq is also worrisome. While U.S. pundits and politicians discuss amnesty, the Iraqi government is also debating accrediting Hezbollah’s al-Manar television. This comes against a context of most European states and even some Arab states pulling the plug on this mouthpiece for terror. That the new Iraqi government would decide to support the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Lebanese Hezbollah against the world is indeed unfortunate. If the State Department has not already endorsed amnesty under its mantra of compromise is always good, then Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad should lobby hard to convince Nuri al-Maliki and his backers that they risk a grave miscalculation.


 – Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, returned last week from a research trip to Iraq.

Dan Senor


In evaluating any reconciliation proposal, five central questions must first be answered:


I.                    What will be the reaction of those Iraqi Sunnis who chose NOT to actively participate in the insurgency? They represent the majority in the Sunni communities. Will they resent that enemies of a democratic Iraq are being rewarded for their violence, or will they view this as a constructive process toward ending the violence?

II.                 What will be the reaction of Shiites and Kurds, whose communities have been the targets of insurgent violence? This violence has in turn stoked the sectarian strife we see today in Iraq. Will outreach to Sunni insurgents further inflame resentment and violence from Shiite militias or will it be an important step in reducing provocations?

III.               What will be the reaction of the regional stakeholders, especially the small “d” democrats who are protesting autocratic governments throughout the region? Will they feel emboldened or abandoned by our olive branch? And what about the autocrats themselves, many of whom have passively — and in some cases actively — supported the Iraqi insurgency? Will they view our outreach as that borne of weakness or strength?

IV.              What will be the reaction of those specific insurgency leaders with whom the Iraqi government engages? What can they actually deliver? As a point of comparison, when the Coalition received outreach from insurgency leaders following the capture of Saddam Hussein, back in December 2003, and discussions ensued, it was never clear who we were dealing with and who exactly they were speaking for, not to mention what they were capable of delivering. Do we have a clearer picture and a reasonable set of expectations in the current environment?

V.                 Finally, and most importantly, what will be the reaction of the families of those American soldiers that have been the victims of insurgent violence? Whether we are talking about reconciliation with passive supporters of the insurgency or with actual direct participants will be a fundamental distinction for Americans.

 Dan Senor, former adviser to the Bush Administration, was based in Baghdad from April 2003 through June 2004.   

NR Symposium — National Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.

Most Popular

White House

The Mueller Report Should Shock Our Conscience

I've finished reading the entire Mueller report, and I must confess that even as a longtime, quite open critic of Donald Trump, I was surprised at the sheer scope, scale, and brazenness of the lies, falsehoods, and misdirections detailed by the Special Counsel's Office. We've become accustomed to Trump making up ... Read More

An Idea for Student Loans: Get Rid of Them

Here is a three-part plan for something practical the federal government could do to relieve college-loan debt. Step 1: The federal government should stop making college loans itself and cease guaranteeing any such loans. Step 2: It should prohibit educational lending by federally regulated financial institutions ... Read More
White House

The Problem with the Mueller Report

So much for collusion. The media conversation has now officially moved on from the obsession of the last two years to obstruction of justice. That’s because the first volume of the voluminous Mueller report, the half devoted to what was supposed to be the underlying crime of a Trump conspiracy with Russia, ... Read More

Screw York Yankees

You are dead to me. You are a collection of Fredos. The cock has crowed, you pathetic sniveling jerks. The team I have rooted for since 1965, when I first visited the House that Ruth Built, where I hawked peanuts and ice cream a lifetime ago, watched countless games (Guidry striking out 18!), has gotten so ... Read More
White House


Some of you will be familiar with a lefty, partisan Democratic organization called MoveOn, formerly MoveOn.Org. It was founded during an investigation into President Bill Clinton’s shenanigans (which were not, Democratic mythology notwithstanding, strictly sexual in nature) and argued that it was time for the ... Read More