A timetable for withdrawal of occupation troops from Iraq. Amnesty for all insurgents who attacked U.S. and Iraqi military targets. Release of all security detainees from U.S. and Iraqi prisons. Compensation for victims of coalition military operations.
Those sound like the demands of some of the insurgents themselves, and in fact they are. But they're also key clauses of a national reconciliation plan drafted by new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who will unveil it Sunday. [Editor's Note: Click here to read more about the softened version of the plan that was released on Sunday, June 25.] The provisions will spark sharp debate in Iraq—but the fiercest opposition is likely to come from Washington, which has opposed any talk of timetables, or of amnesty for insurgents who have attacked American soldiers.
But in Iraq, even a senior military official in the U.S.-led coalition said Friday that the coalition might consider a timetable under certain circumstances. And the official was careful to point out that a distinction needs to be made between terrorists and the resistance.
NEWSWEEK has obtained a draft copy of the national reconciliation plan, and verified its contents with two Iraqi officials involved in the reconciliation process who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the plan's contents. Prime Minister Maliki will present the document to the National Assembly when it convenes on Sunday, and it's expected to be debated over the coming week. Maliki has made reconciliation and control of party militias the main emphasis of his new government. This plan follows a series of secret negotiations over the past two months between seven insurgent groups, President Jalal Talabani and officials of the U.S. embassy. The insurgent groups involved are Sunnis but do not include foreign jihadis like al Qaeda and other terrorist factions who deliberately target civilians; those groups have always denounced any negotiations.
The distinction between insurgents and terrorists is one of the key principles in the document, and is in response to Sunni politicians' demands that the "national resistance" should not be punished for what they see as legitimate self-defense in attacks against a foreign occupying power. Principle No. 19 calls for "Recognizing the legitimacy of the national resistance and differentiating or separating it from terrorism" while "encouraging the national resistance to enroll in the political process and recognizing the necessity of the participation of the national resistance in the national reconciliation dialogue."
The plan also calls for a withdrawal timetable for coalition forces from Iraq, but it doesn't specify an actual date—one of the Sunnis' key demands. It calls for "the necessity of agreeing on a timetable under conditions that take into account the formation of Iraqi armed forces so as to guarantee Iraq's security," and asks that a U.N. Security Council decree confirm the timetable. Mahmoud Othman, a National Assembly member who is close to President Talabani, said that no one disagrees with the concept of a broad, conditions-based timetable. The problem is specifying a date, which the United States has rejected as playing into the insurgents' hands. But Othman didn't rule out that reconciliation negotiations called for in the plan might well lead to setting a date. "That will be a problem between the Iraqi government and the other side [the insurgents], and we will see how it goes. It's not very clear yet."
The senior coalition military official, who agreed to discuss this subject with NEWSWEEK and The Times of London on the condition of anonymity, notably did not outright rule out the idea of a date. "One of the advantages of a timetable—all of a sudden there is a date which is a much more explicit thing than an abstract condition," he said. "That's the sort of assurance that [the Sunnis] are looking for."
"Does that mean the subject of a date is up for negotiation?" he was asked. "I think that if men of goodwill sit down together and exchange ideas, which might be defined either by a timetable or by ... sets of conditions, there must be a capacity to find common ground," the official said.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, in a recent interview with NEWSWEEK referred to a "conditions-driven roadmap" rather than a timetable. Officially, the U.S. position is that coalition troops would leave as soon as Iraqi government officials say they're able to handle their own security, which leaves some room for diplomatic wiggle if the Iraqis declare their own intended timetable.
Equally contentious from the U.S. point of view is the idea of granting amnesty to insurgents who have attacked and killed American soldiers. That is almost taken as a given by Iraqi negotiators, however. The draft plan calls for the release of all security detainees being held without charges in the country, estimated at as many as 14,000, going far beyond Maliki's announcement two weeks ago that he would be releasing 2,500 such detainees. In addition, the draft plan suggests forming a committee to decide on release of those convicted of crimes already. In both cases, those convicted of common crimes or of terrorism would be exempted from the amnesty.
The devil will likely be in the details. Everyone agrees for instance that a bomb set off in a mosque is terrorism. But if a roadside bomb is set off targeting soldiers, but killing innocent bystanders—is that resistance, or terrorism? "A lot will depend on the exact wording," says Othman.
Maliki's reconciliation plan will undoubtedly be the subject of protracted discussions, and not everyone in the Iraqi government is pleased with it. The document also calls for bringing militias and "death squads" under control—a provision which the powerful Shia party, SCIRI, is not happy with, because it effectively equates militias with the insurgents. Maliki is also Shia but from the Dawa party. And Sunnis, for their part, are reluctant to renounce the insurgency when they are still threatened by Shia militias, and by Shia-dominated police. "The Sunnis have only one card to play, the insurgency," says the senior coalition official. "They don't have enough population and they're not sitting on any of the resources. Therefore their political identity is almost entirely defined by the insurgency."
Breaking that Shia/Sunni impasse won't be easy. But as the U.S. ambassador says, "Every war must come to an end," and few on any side in Iraq any longer believe they can kill their way to peace. The only alternative is to try to talk their way there.