Mission reversed

One purpose of Rumsfeld's surprise visit today with Iraq's new leaders appears to be quite contrary to the Bush administration's initial post-war strategy.

Published April 12, 2005 6:51PM (EDT)

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld paid a surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday, where he met with the new president and prime minister. He also continued to air the type of warnings (somewhat vague though they may be) that he's been giving to Iraq's new parliamentarians since last month: "Anything that would delay [the writing of a constitution] or disrupt that as a result of turbulence or incompetence or corruption in government would be unfortunate," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld may be seeking to rein in newly installed Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, who told the Washington Post on Monday of his controversial plan to "eradicate terror in the country within months." According to the former Kurdish rebel leader, the solution is to grant amnesty for some insurgents. Talabani explained, "There are two kinds of killing: In battle or in action, this could be covered by the amnesty. Those who are involved in killing innocent people, detonation of car bombs, killing people in mosques and in churches, these would not be covered by the amnesty."

Talabani declined to be specific about how many insurgents would be granted amnesty under the proposal, but the implication seems to be that while the sectarian violence waged against civilians would remain a punishable offense, charges against insurgents who targeted American and Iraqi security forces would be dropped. Such a concession to anti-American forces would help "win over the Iraqis to the democratic process going on in the country," Talabani suggested. He also acknowledged that the amnesty plan is intended to win the support of certain insurgent groups -- regarding the Shiite followers of cleric Moqtada Sadr, who have pledged allegiance to the new Iraqi government in exchange for the release of several hundred of their detainees, Talabani said: "I will do my best to release them."

But there's one group that Talabani isn't quite ready to roll out the welcome mat for: members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party. And that may speak to one purpose of Rumsfeld's visit; recently, U.S. administrators have been reinstating many former Baathists who were removed after Hussein's fall in 2003. (The original purging of the Baathists by Paul Bremer's CPA was viewed as a huge mistake by many.) According to the BBC's Caroline Hawley, Rumsfeld's visit to Baghdad is meant to cover the Bush administration's tracks and warn the new leaders against purging Hussein's former soldiers from the Iraqi security forces now.

But if Talabani's recent remarks are anything to go by, Rumsfeld may have trouble reining him in: "Of course [many Shia and Kurds] are hating very much Saddam's Baathists. We must also take into consideration the desire of these people in dealing with these criminals."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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