Iraq - The Uses Of Amnesty
By Terrell E. Arnold

On June 25, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a plan to bring about national reconciliation in Iraq. The plan represented a watered-down version of his original proposal that included a general amnesty except for outright criminals and unreconstructable terrorists. The published version of the amnesty would be offered to "insurgents who renounce violence and have not killed American forces or Iraqis." Some have noted that the new language makes it virtually impossible to extend amnesty to anybody, but the language at best is an awkward compromise. First, it was drafted as Maliki's response to an American refusal to agree with amnesty for anyone who had killed an American serviceman or other Americans serving in Iraq. Second, it excluded anyone who had killed an Iraqi because of a comparable uproar among Iraqis who said Iraqi lives were as important as American ones.
Anyone in Iraq or America might readily agree that the idea of extending amnesty to someone who has killed someone else is repugnant. Unfortunately, killing people is what wars are about, and the casualties in Iraq have mounted. Last week the number of American and Coalition deaths went above 2,500, while the wounded exceeded 20,000. On the Iraqi side, however, the numbers were staggering, even if unclear. Estimates of Iraqi dead, based on mortuary and other sources of data, exceed 50,000, and there are enormous gaps in knowledge of Iraqi deaths. The British medical journal Lancet estimated two years ago that the number of Iraqi deaths exceeded 100,000, but violence since them may have more than doubled that number. In an environment that has been riddled for more than three years with small arms fire, high altitude bombardments, roadside bombings, and other standoff attacks, who can say exactly, except the living who count their dead and missing? The bottom line here is that at least 20 times and maybe 50 times as many Iraqis have died as Coalition forces, and the number of Iraqis wounded or rendered homeless by bombardment could easily run more than 500,000.
If amnesty were about equity and forgiveness, the casualties of the Iraq war, as indeed of all wars, would pose an insurmountable barrier to extending it. But amnesty is not about equity and forgiveness, nor is it a pardon. It is merely recognition of the fact that some definitive safe status must be extended to all combatants in order reliably to stop the fighting. In that sense, amnesty is essential for convincing combatants that they no longer should fight, and if they stop they will not be killed or imprisoned.
No one wants to amnesty murderers. War at best is a gross form of crime against humanity, but it is not personal. When it becomes personal, as in cases such as Haditha, the crime of war has become personal, and a personal killing of another is simply murder. How to identify such a criminal element is a major challenge for any amnesty process.
As reported by UPI last week, a number of middle and senior grade military officers, in Iraq and elsewhere, who have commented about the subject have concluded that amnesty, "done correctly" could end the war more quickly, and that would be a service to US forces. A number of officers cited the rules of war in saying that US forces are legitimate targets. Their rationale is if they are "armed, wearing armor and occupying a foreign country," they are proper targets. That is a standard definition for a warlike situation.
One military commander, according to the UPI report, proposed an amnesty design. His plan would (1) offer amnesty to "everyone for any attacks against Coalition forces, Iraqi security forces, sectarian violence and even tribal feuds; (2) deny amnesty to "foreign fighters and specific, named Iraqi high-value individuals" (precise definition not provided), (3) put a specific short time limit on the amnesty (maybe as little as a week); (4) pose "steep" penalties for people who continue the resistance; and (5) offer specific rewards, with an expiration date, for those who turn in weapons and such like. For those denied amnesty, he would offer "a fair trial and no death penalty if they turn themselves in and give up their weapons."
The foregoing proposal does about all of the useful work an amnesty can hope to accomplish. One of its principal virtues is that it recognizes the hopelessness of trying to sort, after the fact, who did what to whom. The fog of war will forever obscure the whole story, and some bad guys will get away with some bad things. But as one of the officers interviewed for the UPI article commented, "I'm consoled by the fact that we've dished out much worse that we've taken." That is an honest and brutally frank appraisal of what has happened in Iraq. It says that, as judged by comparative casualty rates, most of the mayhem in Iraq has been committed by Coalition forces. At this stage, it is a brutish self-service for Americans to pretend otherwise.
If we are lucky, we will all walk away from this experience with as little trauma as possible. We should begin that walk by recognizing that an amnesty - in an important degree - must extend to all who took part in and contributed to combat in Iraq. This is not just about Iraqis who may have killed and wounded Coalition men and women. It is also about the killing and wounding of many times more Iraqis by American and other Coalition forces. We need Iraqi understanding of our human losses no more and no less than they need our understanding of their losses.
Reality simply escapes anyone who asserts that we should feel noble about what the Coalition has done in Iraq. That war is an unnecessary human calamity, and it must end. As we try to end it, we truly should find a better way to extricate our people from this disaster than retrieving them from the roof of the US Embassy by helicopter, as we ended the Vietnam War. If the broadest possible amnesty would help to accomplish that result, if it will improve prospects that this calamity will not recur or go on unabated, if it will facilitate amicable settlement, then it is time to put that amnesty in place.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counterterrorism, and as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He will welcome comment at



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