Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi signed a long-awaited amnesty law Saturday that would pardon Iraqis who had committed minor crimes, but not those guilty of killing. The amnesty, which had been expected to be a key element in the government’s efforts to put down a 15-month-old insurgency, came as sporadic clashes continued in the holy Shiite city of Najaf after two days of intense fighting between U.S. forces and Shiite Muslim insurgents that had spread to other Shiite communities. Shiite leaders worked Saturday to restore a cease-fire and aides to militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia was involved in the fighting, appealed to U.N. officials to mediate an end to the violence.
The amnesty had been intended to help put down similar outbursts of violence, coaxing nationalist guerrillas to the government’s side, while separating them from fighters using terrorist-style bombings.
Early drafts reportedly would have forgiven most people involved in the insurgency, but the law was apparently changed to exclude anyone who had killed. “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,” he said, referring to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose followers have claimed responsibility for deadly suicide bombings. The amnesty would forgive those who committed minor crimes between May 1, 2003, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and Saturday, he said. Those eligible would need to turn themselves in over the next 30 days, he said. “This order has been established to allow our citizens to rejoin civil society and participate in the reconstruction of their country and the improvement of their lives, instead of wasting their lives pointlessly toward a lost cause,” he said.
Those eligible for the amnesty include people in possession of light arms and explosives, those who hid intelligence about terrorist groups and people who helped those groups commit crimes, Allawi said.
Iraqi officials had earlier said the amnesty might extend to those who killed U.S. and other coalition troops. U.S. officials said an early draft contained ambiguous language on that issue, but later drafts ruled it out.
Meanwhile, Iraqi religious leaders tried to restore a ceasefire between al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militant and coalition and Iraqi forces that had shattered in two days of fighting that began Thursday.
Al-Sadr aides met in Baghdad on Saturday 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,” said Ali al-Yassiry, an al-Sadr aide.
Benomar said al-Sadr’s group was prepared for an immediate cease-fire and had asked for a meeting between their group and Allawi and Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer.
Much of the main fighting appeared over by Saturday afternoon.
In Najaf, U.S. warplanes flew overhead and American armored vehicles and Humvees blocked the main roads into the city, but most streets appeared deserted. Sporadic explosions and gunfire echoed through the city, but the violence was far less than that of the previous days.
Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi on Friday gave insurgents 24 hours to leave the city.
On Saturday, it was unclear if militiamen were withdrawing, though none were present outside al-Sadr’s house, which is usually heavily guarded.
The U.S. military said two Marines were killed in Najaf on Friday “as a result of enemy action.” Also Friday, an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a patrolling U.S. vehicle in Baghdad, killing one soldier.
Allawi said more than 1,200 people had been arrested during the clashes, some were followers of Saddam’s regime, others were common criminals released in a prison amnesty during Saddam’s rule.
Operations to restore security in Najaf would continue, he said. “The Iraqi police, National Guard and the army will escalate their operations against the outlaw people. This should be clear,” he said.
On Saturday, the U.S. military said it had secured the cemetery. Marines also found weapons caches there, including bomb-making materials, rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and ammunition.
In the capital, guerrillas fired five mortar rounds into central Baghdad about 700 a.m. Saturday, damaging two sport utility vehicles, but causing no serious damage, the U.S. military said.