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June 28, 2006

The amnesty plan for Iraqi insurgents is a victory for the coalition, not a concession - argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

The Iraqi Prime Minister has proposed an amnesty for those insurgents who are not al-Qaeda. This is a victory for the coalition, not a concession - argues Brendan Simms, Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

The announcement by the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliqi of a new plan for reconciliation has caused widespread controversy. It envisages an amnesty for all those insurgents who have not "committed crimes against the people of Iraq".

This is code for saying that most of the Sunni Arab "resistance" are invited to join the political process, but that al-Q in Iraq or the Iraqi al-Q cadres, for most appear now to be home grown is to be exempted from the amnesty. This is, of course, a political, rather than a legal or an operational distinction as most diehard jihadists would be unlikely to want to take advantage of it anyway. There is also talk of a "timetable" for the withdrawal, or at least the reduction of coalition forces.

Predictably, the plan has drawn the ire of many western politicians and some of the conservative commentariat. The proposed amnesties have been condemned as a capitulation to "terrorism" and an insult to the memory of the more than 2000 coalition servicemen who have lost their lives trying to bring democracy to Iraq, not to mention the tens of thousands of wounded. Giving those who have ambushed, kidnapped and killed an amnesty for their actions is indeed a bitter pill to swallow.

But sooner or later something of this sort will have to be done. The military effort in Iraq since the removal of Saddam Hussein was never an end in itself. The long-term objective remains the creation of a viable democratic Iraq, which will contain extremism, secure the Gulf's natural resources for the world economy, not threaten its neighbours and generally help to stabilize the region. We are still far from this goal, but much has been achieved. Dismantling the Baathist dictatorship was an essential first step, the elections and constitution a second. The next move must be the re-integration of the Sunni Arab mainstream into the political process.

Here Northern Ireland may point the way. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was the key to persuading the vast majority of physical force Irish republicans to devote themselves (almost) exclusively to peaceful means. This was attacked at the time as a craven surrender to terror, but those who took the plunge in 1998, such as the then Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, have been vindicated historically, even if their personal political fortunes have since waned. No part of the Good Friday Agreement hurt Trimble more within his own community, than the early release of IRA prisoners. And yet it was critical to securing the agreement of Sinn Fein and breaking the political logjam. At that time it was wisely said that while the Unionists had won, they were too stupid to see it, and that while the Republicans had lost, they were too clever to let on.

Moreover, it is important to remember that the Good Friday Agreement was not a capitulation, nor did those British and Irish servicemen who had battled the IRA, INLA and the Protestant paramilitaries lose their lives and limbs in vain. By holding the line for twenty-five years they created the space for politics to develop. The essentially "internal" power-sharing solution within the United Kingdom is not the 32-couny socialist United Ireland for which the IRA went back to war in 1969. Likewise, the agreed Iraq which is on offer to Sunni Arabs is a far cry from the toxic dictatorship which launched unprovoked attacks on two of its neighbours and proved such a prison for its constituent peoples. If the coalition had withdrawn in late 2003 or early 2004, as the insurgency spiralled out of control, the emergence of a new Iraq would have been stifled at birth.

Besides, painful as the spectre of an amnesty for insurgents who have killed coalition troops might be for us, it is ten times more traumatic for the Iraqi moderates, Kurds and Shias who have been slaughtered in their thousands by terrorists. Yet they have approved the measure, if with misgivings and significant amendments. For if the amnesty is to be meaningful it can exempt the indiscriminate killers of civilians, but it must cover the Sunni Arab insurgents responsible for the targeted killing of thousands of mainly Shia security forces and community leaders. If the democratically-elected leader of Iraq is prepared to bite that bullet, we should respect that and support him.

But not too obviously. It is an ironical fact that the cooler the reception accorded to the plan in the west, the more credibility it is likely to acquire among Sunni Arabs in Iraq and on the mythical "Arab Street". Here the omens are reasonably positive. Even in its modified form, the plan has received warm backing from the Sunni parties represented in parliament. How it will go down among the insurgents themselves is not clear. But they do not really have anywhere else to go. As the terms of the plan make clear, continuing the insurgency now serves to perpetuate the occupation as much as undermine it, and further to entrench the Shia parties in power. It has become a form of self-strangulation. Maliqi's plan may help to get the more farsighted of the insurgents off that hook. If accepted it will be a victory disguised as a concession, but only if we do not welcome it as such too loudly.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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