BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -One of Iraq’s largest Sunni Arab groups endorsed the prime minister’s national reconciliation plan on Tuesday, and the government announced new benefits aimed at paving the way for freed detainees to return to their normal lives.
The political moves came a day after bombs killed at least 40 people at markets in two Iraqi cities, while key lawmakers said seven Sunni Arab insurgent groups offered the government a conditional truce.
A suicide car bomb also struck a busy gas station in the norther city of Kirkuk on Tuesday, killing at least three people and wounding 17, police Col. Adel Abdullah said. Fifteen cars were charred by the flames.
A U.S. Marine and a soldier were killed in separate attacks Tuesday west and south of Baghdad, while another U.S. soldier died the day before in the volatile Anbar province, the military said. The deaths raised to 2,528 the number of U.S. military service members who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
In the first tangible measure after the reconciliation plan was announced on Sunday, the council of ministers said government employees who had been detained and recently released will be reinstated to their jobs and their service should be considered uninterrupted in consideration of bonuses, promotion and retirement privileges.
The ministers said freed students will be allowed to return to school to take their final exams and will not be failed for the 2005-2006 school year despite time missed.
The measures were decided at the council’s normal session on June 21 “to pave the way for the prime minister’s reconciliation initiative,” according to a statement released Monday.
It said the benefits could only be enjoyed once by former detainees and would not apply if somebody is arrested again.
The Justice Ministry, meanwhile, said 453 more detainees were released from U.S. detention centers across Iraq, part of al-Maliki’s plans to free 2,500 by the end of the month as a goodwill gesture.
In another boost for the Shiite prime minister’s reconciliation proposal, prominent Sunni cleric Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie offered the support of his Sunni Endowment, the state agency responsible for Sunni mosques and shrines.
But he called on the government to move quickly to fill in the details of the plan and said it should include the disbanding of armed militias, as well as the release of all prisoners who have not been convicted.
“We bless this initiative,” he said. “We see a glimpse of hope out of this plan, but at the same time we are noticing that some people are pushing the armed groups to attack some areas in Baghdad, spreading terror and chaos in the city in order to make this plan a failure.”
“Thus, the government is required to take decisive actions so that the citizens feel that the state is a real protector,” he added. “We think that the first step to be taken regarding this plan is to disband armed militias because the government will not be able to impose the law on everybody with the presence of those militiamen that consider themselves above the law.”
Minority Sunnis have blamed Shiite-led militias of random detentions and torture.
The bombings Monday came as a reminder of just how difficult establishing security can be in many areas of Iraq. Both markets were jammed with shoppers buying dinner provisions as temperatures began to cool after sunset.
The deadliest attack was a bicycle bombing in Baqouba, the Sunni insurgent stronghold 35 miles (56 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad. The bombing killed at least 25 and wounded 33, according to Dr. Ahmed Fouad, director of the morgue at Baqouba General Hospital.
Minutes earlier, a blast killed at least 15 people and wounded 56 in Hillah, a mainly Shiite city 65 miles (105 kilometers) south of the capital, said police Capt. Muthana Khalid.
A bomb also exploded near a house in the village of Khernabat, wounding four residents, in the same area where the bicycle attack occurred, police said.
The seven insurgent organizations who approached the government are mostly made up of former members or backers of Saddam Hussein’s government, military or security agencies, and were motivated in part by fear of undue Iranian influence in the country, lawmakers said.
If confirmed, their offer would mark an important potential shift and could stand as evidence of a growing divide between Iraq’s homegrown Sunni insurgency and the more brutal and ideological fighters of al-Qaida in Iraq, who are believed to be mainly non-Iraqi Islamic militants.
Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman linked the offer to al-Maliki’s national reconciliation plan, involving amnesty for opposition fighters except those who had killed Iraqis, were involved in terrorism or committed crimes against humanity. Al-Maliki’s plan, disclosed Sunday, was thought to have denied amnesty to any insurgent who had killed American forces, though the wording was vague.
The Mujahedeen Shura Council, the terrorist umbrella organization that includes al-Qaida in Iraq, rejected the reconciliation plan.
Shiite lawmaker Hassan al-Suneid, who first reported insurgent groups’ gesture, said al-Maliki was considering a possible meeting with their leaders or contacts through intermediaries. Al-Suneid is a member of the political bureau of al-Maliki’s Dawa Party.
The opening was confirmed by Othman, a close associate of President Jalal Talabani, who held face-to-face talks with seven insurgent organizations about two months ago. It was never clear which groups Talabani met with.
Al-Suneid gave the names of six of the seven organizations that approached the government Monday: the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mohammed Army, Abtal al-Iraq (Heroes of Iraq), the 9th of April Group, al-Fatah Brigades and the Brigades of the General Command of the Armed Forces.
“I expect that those groups are the same ones that have made contacts with President Talabani, and now they are widening the range of their contacts. Now they are more serious after the announcement of the (reconciliation) plan,” al-Suneid told The Associated Press.
Othman was unable to name the groups or say whether they were the same ones Talibani had contacted. But he said they also sought talks with U.S. forces.
A meaningful truce with insurgents would make it much easier for the United States to withdraw troops from Iraq.
In other developments Tuesday:
• A professor at a technology university in Baghdad was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Studies also said it will stage a sit-in in all universities on Wednesday to protest the frequent kidnappings and violence targeting its employees.
• Police found the bullet-riddled bodies of five men, including three who were handcuffed, in two areas of Baghdad.