(12-17) 04:00 PST Baghdad -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on former members of ousted President Saddam Hussein's disbanded army to join Iraq's new security forces in an effort to restore peace to the war-racked country.
Al-Maliki's remarks came at the beginning of a two-day national reconciliation conference intended to unite ethnic, religious and political groups behind a strategy for ending the sectarian warfare that kills scores of civilians each day.
His decision to welcome back former members of the Sunni Arab-dominated army is a key concession. In another conciliatory move, al-Maliki, a Shiite, urged political leaders to review the law that banned loyalists of Hussein's Baath Party from working in government and to ensure protections for their families.
The former U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, dissolved the Iraqi army after U.S.-led forces toppled Hussein's government, a move now generally considered as a mistake because it left a pool of armed, unemployed Sunnis to swell the ranks of the Sunni insurgency.
Al-Maliki has been under increasing pressure from the Bush administration to improve the Iraqi security forces. But, exposing fissures that have plagued al-Maliki's struggling government as the country descended into sectarian warfare, several Shiite and Sunni groups rejected the proposal, arguing that it would reward insurgents and former stalwarts of Hussein's regime.
"The new Iraqi army has opened its doors to the members of the former army, whether officers or enlisted men," al-Maliki said. "The national unity government is ready to absorb those who have the desire to serve their country on a professional basis."
Junior officers from the prewar army had already been allowed into the new force. Al-Maliki's invitation Saturday was more far-reaching and would apply to officers of all ranks. He said soldiers and officers would be reintegrated into the army as long as there was space for them and a need for their expertise. Those who do not return would receive pensions, he said.
On Saturday, the Bush administration said it was encouraged by al-Maliki's remarks and urged the parties at the reconciliation conference to "chart a course that brings stability and security to a unified and democratic Iraq," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Bush discussed plans for the conference with al-Maliki for half an hour Friday via secure video. The prime minister talked about providing greater security, particularly in Baghdad, "by going after all sources of violence, including insurgents and militias," Johndroe said.
More than 250 representatives from various political blocs attended the meeting, which is scheduled to continue today in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. Participants said they expected to discuss various issues such as disarming militias, shuffling the Cabinet and granting amnesties to insurgents.
Organizers would not release a list of participants, but said some Baath Party loyalists with no ties to the Sunni insurgency were present.
"Reconciliation is the lifesaver which will lead us to the shores of safety, because the alternative is nothing but death and destruction," al-Maliki said.
Many Sunni politicians greeted the announcement with enthusiasm.
"We should help those who initiated this process. It is a step toward success," said Nasir al-Ani, a member of parliament from the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party.
Al-Ani said he will urge former army officers to reapply for military jobs so that "we can make use of their expertise." "Those with blood on their hands will be brought to account," he said, but he insisted that the majority of former Baathists are ordinary men who "have families to take care of and a right to live in this country."
It was unclear, however, how much progress the conference's participants could make, given that some key leaders boycotted it. The most notable absence was that of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls a powerful bloc in parliament as well as the Shiite militia believed to be driving much of the sectarian violence.
Leaders of the hard-line Sunni Muslim Scholars Association condemned the conference, releasing a statement on the pro-insurgent Al Zawra satellite television station that called it "a card played by Maliki in order to save Bush's face."
Saleh al-Mutlaq, a member of parliament with the National Dialogue Front, a Sunni slate that includes former Baathists, released a statement saying his slate would boycott the conference until the government dissolves sectarian militias, releases detainees and restores former officials to their jobs.
As the meeting was beginning Saturday, a representative from the Iraqi National Accord, the party of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, said the party was withdrawing from the conference because it felt important groups were excluded.
Those who attended the conference, including former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, said they expect dissenters to rejoin reconciliation negotiations soon. Chalabi, once a proponent of de-Baathification, said he expects key Baathist leaders to eventually embrace the proposals.
Organizers of the conference said they extended invitations to all political, ethnic and religious groups, including opponents of the government. They said they were disappointed that some had not accepted their invitation.
"We don't feel we had all the groups in attendance," said Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman. "We think there should be more conferences on the issues."
Many political leaders and observers consider reintegrating Baathists into Iraqi institutions a key element in any strategy to calm the insurgency. But it has many critics.
"It's unfair and it's caused a lot of problems and for us. I think it's a huge obstacle to reconciliation," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish politician who did not attend the conference.
Al-Maliki said the government would distinguish between Baathists who in Hussein's day had committed crimes against civilians and those who had not. "We must differentiate between the two types so that the first group would not be exposed to injustice, nor the second group escape due punishment," he said.
Al-Maliki said the Iraqi government had reached an agreement with the U.S.-led coalition to speed up the transfer of more authority to Iraqi forces.
"The government is realizing the time has come to take over all the responsibility and the security of the country," he said.
Mithal al-Alusi, head of the Umma political party and of the Debaathification Committee, said he would support a limited amnesty for Iraqis who are willing to admit their crimes and participate in the political process.
"I have lost two sons. I know how painful the situation is," he said. "I would give amnesty to the people who have killed my sons."
In Baghdad during the 24 hours ending Saturday, 53 bodies were found shot execution-style, including 15 from the embattled Sunni neighborhood of Ghazaliya. At least 11 people died in additional violence across the country.
Also Saturday, the U.S. military announced that three American soldiers were killed and one wounded north of Baghdad when a roadside bomb exploded as they were clearing a road.
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.