- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi yesterday signed an amnesty intended to persuade insurgents to put down their weapons and join government efforts to rebuild the country.

But the law pardons only minor criminals, not killers or terrorists, and appeared unlikely in itself to dampen miltant violence. Some leaders of the 15-month-old insurgency called the interim prime minister’s amnesty “insignificant.”

Also yesterday, sporadic explosions and gunfire echoed through Najaf, south of the capital, as Shi’ite leaders appealed for a renewed cease-fire to end two days of battles between insurgents and Iraqi and U.S. forces in several Shi’ite communities.

Last night, at least 12 explosions rocked central Baghdad, apparently targeting the fortified Green Zone enclave housing the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi interim government buildings. The military said some explosions might have been mortars.

The long-delayed amnesty, coupled with a tough emergency law passed last month, is an effort to help end the violence by coaxing nationalist guerrillas to the government’s side.

The amnesty applies to relatively minor crimes — such as weapons possession, hiding intelligence about terror attacks or harboring terrorists — and appears intended to persuade those with information on attacks to share it with police.

Mr. Allawi said the amnesty forgives those who committed minor crimes from May 1, 2003, just after dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, up until yesterday.

“This amnesty is not for people … who have killed. Those people will be brought to justice, starting from Zarqawi down to the person in the street,” Mr. Allawi said, referring to Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, whose followers claim responsibility for suicide bombings and beheadings of civilians.

Rape, kidnapping, looting and terror attacks also are excluded from the amnesty.

Iraqi officials earlier said the amnesty might extend to those who killed U.S. and other coalition troops. U.S. officials said an early draft was ambiguous on that issue, but later drafts ruled it out.

The amnesty was rejected immediately by militant Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia again fought coalition forces in Najaf and elsewhere since Thursday.

“Amnesties are for criminals, but resistance is legitimate and does not need an amnesty,” al-Sadr aide Ahmed al-Shaibany said.

Sporadic clashes continued in Shi’ite areas amid moves for a cease-fire.

The Shi’ite Political Council, an umbrella group representing 38 Shi’ite movements, said it would boycott a national conference this month if violence continued.

Al-Sadr aides met in Baghdad with Iraqi dignitaries and U.N. official Jamal Benomar. “We called for a more effective U.N. role, the end of military actions, respecting the truce and a political solution for this crisis,” al-Sadr aide Ali al-Yassiry said.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed the United States for the fighting.

“The United States has reached a dead end in Iraq, like a trapped wolf, and it is trying to frighten people by roaring and clawing,” state-run Tehran radio quoted Iran’s Shi’ite leader as saying.

The fighting in Najaf threatens to revive a Shi’ite insurrection that broke out in April and was calmed only in a series of truces in June. Five U.S. servicemen have been killed, including two Marines who died Friday, the military announced. Hundreds of militants have been killed, military spokesmen said, though the militiamen put the number far lower.

Also Friday, an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. vehicle in Baghdad, killing one soldier. At least 925 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003.

Explosions and gunfire continued in Najaf yesterday but most streets appeared deserted. U.S. warplanes flew overhead and American armored vehicles and Humvees blocked main roads into the city.

Mr. Allawi said more than 1,200 had been arrested during the clashes, including followers of Saddam’s regime and common criminals released by Saddam.

The U.S. military said it secured the cemetery where insurgents were hiding. Marines found weapons caches, including bomb-making materials, rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and ammunition. However, the militants appeared to control Najaf’s old city.

Militia fighters also insisted they controlled the southern city of Amarah. Associated Press Television News footage showed them directing traffic and driving police cars there.

The insurgents have overrun small police stations and looted them, “but they haven’t overtaken the whole town,” a British military spokesman said.

In the southern city of Basra, gunmen attacked the governor’s office at dawn with rifles and mortar rounds. Police returned fire, repelling the attack and killing one gunman, police said.

In other violence, a militant group said it had taken a Turkish truck driver hostage and threatened to behead him within 48 hours if his employer did not leave Iraq. The company quickly announced it would withdraw.

Militants have taken scores of foreigners hostage in recent months, trying to drive coalition troops out of Iraq and hamper reconstruction efforts.

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