- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2007

BAGHDAD — Up to 6,000 suspected Sunni insurgents will be freed from Iraqi jails in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the country’s government from collapsing under the strain of sectarian infighting.

The release plan, which could put some hardened combatants back on the streets, is part of a high-stakes gamble by Iraq‘s Shi’ite-led government to win back the confidence of Sunni politicians after increasingly bitter squabbling and walkouts.

It is understood to have been central to a key accord last week between the five main Shi’ite, Kurdish and Sunni political blocs to kick-start the government again after 15 months of near-deadlock.

The failure of Iraq’s politicians to set an example to their warring constituents is likely to be mentioned in this month’s report by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, on the success of the U.S. troop surge. The report is expected to warn that gains in curbing tit-for-tat violence will founder unless more progress is made in political reconciliation.

Civilian deaths from violence in Iraq rose in August to 1,773, according to government figures released yesterday, up from the 1,653 killed in July. The Associated Press said its own figures showed the civilian toll in August is 1,809, compared with 1,760 in July. At least 81 American service members also died in Iraq during August.

Last week’s accord, brokered after growing pressure from Washington, led to an immediate public pledge to scrap the controversial de-Ba’athification law, which bans former senior members of Saddam Hussein’s predominantly Sunni administration from working in government.

But the Sunnis are also understood to have privately secured a separate agreement for mass releases of people arrested during anti-insurgent operations. The plan is a tacit acknowledgement that many of the 24,000 security detainees in Iraqi jails are probably either innocent or small players arrested in large-scale anti-insurgent sweeps.

Most such sweeps have taken place in Sunni areas, and Sunnis, according to U.S. commanders, make up 85 percent of the jail population.

However, with little hard evidence either way, diplomats concede that the amnesty is likely to result in the release of some committed fighters.

The exact number of prisoners to be freed has not been decided, but last week, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the Sunni-backed Islamic Party of Iraq, said 50 detainees will be freed every day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in mid-September. That will total around 1,500 prisoners, although sources say that further releases, bringing the total to 6,000, could follow.

Western diplomats argue that the agreements on prisoner releases and the scrapping of de-Ba’athification measures show that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government is finally taking measures to draw Sunnis in.

“These are some significant steps,” said one. “It does demonstrate that the leaders have recognized publicly that there are issues which need to be addressed, and they have stated their willingness to tackle these together.”

Some liberal Sunni politicians, however, fear that too much compromise with Ba’athists or insurgent elements will ultimately set back the growth of Iraq’s democratic institutions.

“We cannot make peace with the fascists of the Ba’ath or the Islamists,” said Mithal al-Alusi, an independent Sunni member of the Iraqi parliament.

The five signatories to the accord are the two main Kurdish parties (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party), the two main Shi’ite parties (the Islamic Dawa Party and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council) and the main Sunni party, the Islamic Party of Iraq.

They met during the Iraqi parliamentary recess in August to discuss major changes in the “structure, nature and direction of the Iraqi state.”

The importance of regaining Sunni political cooperation is seen to have increased in recent months because of U.S. success in turning Sunni tribes against their former al Qaeda allies in western Iraq.

However, despite welcoming the planned prisoner releases and easing of de-Ba’athification laws as a “great achievement,” Mr. al-Hashemi insists it does not go far enough to persuade his Sunni bloc to rejoin the government.

The bloc, which includes his own party and other more hard-line, pro-insurgent elements, previously quit its five ministerial posts Aug. 1, part of a flurry of walkouts and resignations that left nearly half the 40 seats in Mr. al-Maliki’s Cabinet empty.

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