Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has offered a general amnesty in a rare conciliatory move to undercut support for militants whose offensive has overrun swathes of territory and threatens to tear Iraq apart.
The offer comes on Wednesday after a farcical opening to the new parliament, despite international leaders urging Iraq’s fractious politicians to unite to help combat insurgents, as the military struggles to seize the initiative on the ground.
International leaders have warned Iraq’s politicians there was no time to waste, while the head of a powerful jihadist group that led the militant advance urged skilled professionals to flock to help its newly proclaimed pan-Islamic state.
Mr Maliki’s surprise move, made in his weekly televised address, appeared to be a bid to split the broad alliance of jihadists, loyalists of executed dictator Saddam Hussein and anti-government tribes that has captured large chunks of five provinces, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
It was not immediately clear how many people the amnesty could affect, but analysts have said some form of political reconciliation will be necessary to convince Sunni Arabs angry with the Shi’ite-led government to turn against their coreligionists and jihadists.
The vast majority of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority do not actively support the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) jihadist group spearheading the offensive, but analysts say anger over perceived mistreatment by the authorities means they are less likely to co-operate with the security forces.
Mr Maliki’s announcement came a day after an eagerly awaited opening to the Council of Representatives descended into chaos and ended in disarray as MPs traded heckles and threats.
So many Sunni and Kurdish deputies stayed away after a break meant to soothe soaring tempers that the quorum was lost and a speaker could not be elected, as constitutionally required.
Washington quickly warned that “time is not on Iraq’s side”, with State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf calling for “extreme urgency”.
In another sign of domestic political discord, Mr Maliki on Wednesday rejected an assertion by the autonomous Kurdish region that its control of disputed territory is here to stay.
On the ground, Iraqi forces were struggling to break a stalemate with militants after initially wilting before the militant onslaught.
They have since performed more capably, albeit with limited offensive success.
However, the cost has been high. Nearly 900 security personnel were among 2400 people killed in June, the highest figure in seven years, according to the United Nations.
Thousands of troops, backed by tanks, artillery and aerial cover, have made limited progress in retaking Tikrit which fell on June 11, with a highly publicised operation appearing to have hit difficulties.
“They are advancing slowly because all of the houses and burned vehicles (en route to the city) have been rigged with explosives, and militants have deployed lots of roadside bombs and car bombs on the side of the roads,” said Ahmed Abdullah Juburi, governor of Salaheddin province of which Tikrit is the capital. [AFP]