BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq appealed Tuesday for exiled government opponents to return home "in dignity and peace," saying they were forgiven as part of its amnesty for all prisoners.
Iraqi opponents of President Saddam Hussein's government living abroad said they did not believe the offer was genuine. Iraq in the past has executed exiled opponents who accepted offers to come home.
Iraq on Sunday, announced the "full and complete and final amnesty" of Iraqi prisoners — common and political. The government called the amnesty a way of thanking the nation for supporting Saddam after he received 100 percent backing in last week's presidential referendum. Critics said it was a desperate ploy to rally domestic support in the face of U.S. threats to topple Saddam.
"The amnesty is a great opportunity offered by the Iraqi leadership to those who committed a mistake or a sin which has become a burden on them," said a front-page editorial in the daily Al-Thawra, which speaks for Saddam's government.
"The Iraqis living abroad should make use of this chance and return to the country where they can live in dignity and peace with their families," said the paper, published by the ruling Baath Party.
On Monday night, a senior Foreign Ministry official, Taleb al-Dulaimi, said the government already had taken steps to help exiles, ordering Iraqi embassies "to facilitate the return of Iraqis living abroad who wish to return."
"Diplomatic missions will exert every possible effort to remove any difficulties," he told Iraqi Youth TV, which is owned by Saddam's eldest son, Odai.
Ahmed al-Haboubi, a former government minister now living in Cairo, told The Associated Press in the Egyptian capital that the appeal was really intended to give heart to people in Baghdad facing a possible U.S.-led attack, since Iraqis abroad would not take it seriously.
"The regime has made such gestures since it took power in 1968, but always turned against its opponents and either jailed or executed them," Haboubi said.
Mohammed Abdul Jabar, spokesman for the Islamic Alliance opposition group, said the amnesty offer would be considered a joke by those in exile.
"Saddam should ask the Iraqi people for forgiveness. He is not in a position to pardon or forgive Iraqis," he told the AP in Cairo, speaking by phone from London.
Government opponents contemplating going home have the example of Saddam's two sons-in-law. The two brothers, married to Saddam's daughters, fled into exile in 1995 and talked with Western intelligence agents. They went back to Iraq six months later under an offer of forgiveness, but were killed within hours of their return.
"He may leave those who were in exile after returning for a little while, but after that he'll execute them," said Nazem Odeh, an Iraqi Arabic-language teacher in Jordan who left Iraq in 1996.
"I'll never go back to Baghdad, if not for my sake, it's for the sake of my children. I want to protect my children and ensure that they have a good, secure and stable future and that won't be in Iraq," he told the AP in Amman, Jordan.
Exiled opposition figures had derided Sunday's offer of an amnesty for both criminal and political prisoners, saying they had no confirmation any important political prisoners had been freed.
On Sunday, the government invited foreign reporters to witness hundreds or thousands of prisoners being released — most apparently common criminals — but it remained unclear how many were freed.
Iraq never said how many how Iraqis were imprisoned or how many it would let go. International human rights groups have said political prisoners could number in the tens of thousands.
Government officials insisted that Iraq's prisons had been emptied after the announcement of a "full and complete and final amnesty," and state television showed footage of clean and empty jail cells.
Labor and Social Affairs Minister Munthir Mudher al-Naqshabandi told al-Thawra that "all Iraqi prisons are empty now and there is not any prisoner or detainee in Iraq."
He said that even those convicted of murder had been set free and given a month to seek forgiveness from families of their victims. Originally, the government said convicted murderers would not be freed until they had been forgiven by the families.
But Tuesday, Iraqis who demonstrated at the Information Ministry said they are still waiting for their imprisoned relatives and urged Iraqi authorities to give them information about their loved ones.
The amnesty is the latest effort by Saddam to build support among his people as he faces American threats of a war to topple him unless he lives up to U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding Iraq eliminate its weapons of mass distraction.
In recent months, the government has reopened a bank that had long been closed to allow Iraqis to get mortgages to buy homes. Some political backers have been given cars as gifts, and loans have been made available for autos.
Meanwhile, as part of nationwide celebrations of the presidential referendum results, Iraqi authorities organized mass weddings in Baghdad and other Iraqi provinces Monday.
More than 500 couples got free wedding gowns and suits, a two-day stay in a five-star hotel, and a sum of money, al-Iraqi newspaper said Tuesday. With the economy badly hit by 12 years of sanctions imposed by the United Nations to punish Iraq for its invasion of neighboring Kuwait, many Iraqis cannot afford the cost of a wedding.