BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Sunday unveiled an ambitious, U.S.-backed plan for bringing together ethnic and sectarian factions that left open the possibility of offering amnesty to some insurgents who had killed American or Iraqi troops.
The 28-point plan, presented to parliament, includes amnesty "for those not proved to be involved in crimes, terrorist activities and war crimes against humanity," deliberately vague language hammered out over long and heated closed-door discussions involving both Iraqis and Americans.
Maliki, speaking to lawmakers packed inside the Baghdad Convention Center in the high-security Green Zone, said the plan "does not mean honoring and accepting killers and criminals." However, it calls for releasing thousands of suspected insurgents who "pledge to condemn violence and vow to back" the government. It also advocates ending rules that keep some former members of the once-ruling Baath Party out of political life, provided they haven't committed crimes.
"We realize that there is a segment of those who rebelled against the righteousness, rational and logical and took Satan's route," said Maliki, who took over the premiership a month ago amid high expectations among his war-weary countrymen and U.S. officials. "To those who want to build and reform, we present hands that carry olive branches."
The introduction of the plan came on a day when violence claimed at least 23 lives in Iraq and a video surfaced showing the execution of two men alleged to be Russian hostages seized this month, along with footage of a third body.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, speaking to reporters after the parliamentary session, did not rule out the possibility of pardons for insurgents who had belonged to groups that had taken up arms against American forces.
Only "irreconcilables" -- insurgents who fundamentally oppose the Iraqi state, either by fighting for a return of Baath Party dictatorship or for Al Qaeda's vision of an Islamic Caliphate -- would be categorically excluded, he said.
"All wars must come to an end, and hostility has to be replaced by reconciliation, and difficult decisions have to be made by all," he said. "I'm optimistic that we can reach an understanding on this issue but also one that meets the requirements of justice."
The White House welcomed the initiative, but did not comment on the amnesty proposal.
Reaction from U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, however, was harsh. "The idea that they should even consider talking about amnesty for people who have killed people who liberated their country is unconscionable," Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told "Fox News Sunday."
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) told CBS' "Face the Nation" that any amnesty proposal "is going to run into solid opposition" in the Senate, where he chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.
Maliki was approved as prime minister five weeks ago after a months-long political crisis over formation of a long-term government. His plan, forged in close consultation with U.S. political and military leaders, is among the most wide-reaching attempts by an Iraqi leader to address the widening religious and political chasms that emerged after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and attempt to reduce the country's violence.
Many Iraqi analysts and politicians wondered whether the plan would be effective in drawing down the insurgency. Its most important features, first detailed in the June 17 issue of the Iraqi daily Al Mada, are designed to assuage continued Sunni Arab mistrust of the government. The moves would include the formation of national and provincial committees to negotiate amnesties; steps to demobilize militias and to prevent abuses by U.S.-led forces; and a review of laws purging from public life former members of the Baath Party, which ruled during deposed President Saddam Hussein's regime.
But the plan raised immediate doubts among the country's minority Sunni Arabs, who dominated Iraq under Hussein and now lead the insurgency. Many Sunni Muslims said the plan did not go far enough in heeding their demands, especially for the setting of a concrete timetable for the departure of U.S. troops, which many continue to call an occupying power.
"What do you want me to tell the honorable people? Not to hate the occupation?" said Sheik Ali Hatam Sulayman, a leader of the Albu Asaf tribe in the insurgent stronghold of Al Anbar province. "I can't. I'm sorry."
By diluting any language about a troop withdrawal, the proposal undermines itself, said Wamidh Nadhmi, a Baghdad political scientist sympathetic to the Sunni cause.
"If I were the resistance, I wouldn't talk with a government that depended on a foreign army," he said. "I would talk with the foreign army."