A lot of people have linked to the story that Sunni VP Tareq al-Hashemi says he will veto the controversial deBaathification reform law (something reported in al-Quds al-Arabi a week ago). This responds to intense Sunni antipathy generated by the ambiguities and perceived intent of the legislation; Hashemi claims that the whole Presidency Council agreed. For those who argue - with reason - that legislative benchmarks are overrated, and that the real point should be the substance of reconciliation among communities, Hashemi's explanation should be particularly telling: "We cannot regard this law as a step in the national reconciliation process. The spirit of revenge is so clear in many articles of the law."
The floundering of another reconciliation legislative initiative has received less attention: an amnesty bill proposed by the Maliki government. The issue of Sunni prisoners gets little discussion in the US, but it ranks very high on the list of Sunni political concerns. (Despite the occasional brain-beggaring article about the wonders of new American re-education techniques... go figure. Abu Ghuwhat? And then there's the Brits... ) By most accounts, the number of prisoners has surged over the last year, along with other surges. The most commonly cited number of prisoners is 44,000, which includes 25,000 in US prisons, 83% of them Sunni; al-Jazeera used the figure 49,000 and some accounts exceed 50,000; nobody seems to know for sure.
In early December, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's people began talking of their intention of declaring a general amnesty for large numbers of prisoners on the occasion of the Eid. This was a hopeful sign. When it didn't happen, on December 26 Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would soon submit a general amnesty bill, which he did. Even careful observers, including Ambassador Ryan Crocker, have offered this as evidence of momentum towards reconciliation - and, if implemented correctly, it really would be.
But then it got bogged down in Parliament, where so many ideas about Iraqi national reconciliation go to die or mutate. Today, al-Hayat reported that an unusual five party alliance including 100 MPs attacked the amnesty bill. (The five parties are themselves an interesting mix: The Accordance Front and Dialogue Front, ISCI, the Iraqi List (Allawi), and the Sadrist trend. Can you imagine the dinner conversation?). One of the key issues: they want the amnesty to include prisoners in American military prisons as well as those in Iraqi prisons. Another: they want compensation for prisoners who were never convicted of a crime. Without that, warned one MP, it could not be a general amnesty and would not be considered a step towards reconciliation.
The Iraqi government is reportedly working on a new draft to accomodate their concerns - though I haven't seen confirmation. This raises some interesting questions. Such an amnesty, if implemented across the board in a fair and responsible fashion, could indeed be an important step towards resolving major grievances... althought it might also backfire by putting resentful, insurgency-age young men back on to the streets. Were such a law passed - demanding the release of prisoners held in US facilities and compensation for those not convicted of a crime - would the United States honor it? If not, how could the Iraqi government proceed? Something of an interesting test of the proposition that there exists a sovereign Iraq... and one more variable for us all to think about.