Quiet US bid to talk to Iraqi insurgents

One Iraqi official says American representatives have met with some militants.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

As American and Iraqi politicians weigh the merits of engaging regional powers in the search for solutions in Iraq, it appears that both Baghdad and Washington are also quietly talking with Iraq's insurgent leaders in an effort to end the unrelenting violence.

US officials have not commented on reports of these recent meetings with resistance-group representatives. But Arab journalists, politicians, and officials in Jordan say they've occurred.

The meetings have come amid pressure from two key Shiite politicians on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to alter course. The opposition has also stepped up efforts to outflank his increasingly unpopular rule. And in the US, the White House is sifting recommendations from the Iraq Study Group and other reviews as discontent grows over the administration's strategy.

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This week, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a secular politician accused by rivals of links to the insurgency, announced a broad alliance he is calling the National Salvation Front. The bloc aims to unite opposition parties against Mr. Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), who met with the Bush administration in Washington on Monday.

Iraq's ambassador to Jordan, Saad al-Hayani, says that meetings have taken place in the Iraqi Embassy here between US representatives and members of the resistance in the past few months, as well as between Iraqis who have accepted and rejected the political process under US occupation, some of whom were directly involved with the insurgency.

"Two large meetings happened here in the embassy," Mr. Hayani says. "They included leaders from the last government, the Baathists, and the old Army. They were offered the opportunity to participate in the political situation if their hands were clean. The meetings were successful and necessary and beneficial."

The current Iraqi government has floated trial balloons regarding amnesties for fighters, though the US government has frequently come out against reconciliation with anyone who has attacked US troops.

In Amman, members of the former government appear to move freely. Among those waiting to meet with Hayani earlier this week was the last Iraqi ambassador to Jordan under Saddam Hussein's government. Hayani also says US officials have met with insurgent representatives in Baghdad and Cyprus. He added that he hopes insurgents can be persuaded to take part in the political process, but that their demands of a US withdrawal and the dismissal of the current Iraqi government had provided little common ground for talks.

Moayed Abu Subieh, a Jordanian journalist who has written about such meetings, says that for the majority of those fighting, their foremost demand remains US withdrawal. Previously, insurgent groups had called for a timetable for withdrawal as a condition for laying down arms, but that demand appears to have solidified into a call for immediate withdrawal.

Mr. Abu Subieh, who writes for Al-Ghad, says that he has knowledge that talks have occurred between US officials and members of the Islamic Army of Iraq, which is made up mostly of members of Mr. Hussein's former military and has been claiming responsibility for attacks on US troops since 2003.

While the group wants to see the US withdraw, he says negotiations with this and other groups are the only way to keep Maliki in power. Further weakening of the government, he says, will only make guerrilla fighters stronger political actors. He also says that many of the groups pay close attention to American politics.

"There were supposed to be negotiations (between Iraqi groups in Amman) on Nov. 9 after the US elections but they were postponed after the failure of the Republicans," he said. "People were waiting for Bush's visit to Amman to clarify his positions on the Iraqi situation and his support for Maliki's government."

The US Embassy in Amman directed all inquiries about the meetings with insurgent groups to the embassy in Baghdad, which had not replied by press time.

President Bush's renewed support for Maliki's government and its current path, Abu Subieh says, was likely only to add steam to those fighting for US withdrawal. He added that the meetings involved just part of what is a multifaceted resistance.

Others, however, say that such meetings are of little significance. "As far as we know, America has not spoken with any of the really active resistance," says Bashar al-Faili, a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), a Sunni political group.

The AMS, while it is now participating in the political process and has elected members in the Iraqi parliament, has frequently made demands similar to those of insurgent groups. Many Iraqis accuse its leaders of having direct links to insurgents, especially the Islamic Army of Iraq.

The Iraqi government recently issued an arrest warrant for AMS spokesman Harith al-Dhari, accusing him of "supporting terrorism." Mr. Dhari is presently spending time in Jordan and other countries in the region.

"Maybe they are talking to small entities, and the reason for that is that the active resistance won't negotiate, because they want America to withdraw from Iraq," Mr. Faili argues. "This is a huge mistake – Americans have to be logical. They have to be realistic and to know one thing – that they are not going to stay in Iraq. That they are not going to have bases in Iraq."

The AMS is also part of the National Salvation Front, the initiative announced by Mr. Mutlaq.

The bloc includes Shiite and Sunni parties that are united in their call for regional and international dialogues on solving the Iraq "catastrophe." The only parties not participating are Maliki's Dawa Party, the country's two main Kurdish parties, and Hakim's SCIRI. It also includes the Fadhila Party led by Ayatollah Samir Yacoubi, a strong Shiite party that rivals SCIRI's power in southern Iraq.

"It is like a shadow government," Mustafa al-Hiti, a member of parliament with Mutlaq's party, says of the new front. "There must be change."

In and around Baghdad Wednesday, more than 100 people were killed or found dead. Three American troops died Monday, two as a result of insurgent attacks. Despite a string of ambushes, mortar attacks, and bombings Tuesday, the chief US military spokesman told reporters that all of Iraq would be under Baghdad's control by the fall of 2007, with US soldiers and Marines and other coalition forces playing a supporting role.

Meanwhile, a new poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that 75 percent of Americans believe that to stabilize Iraq, the US should enter talks with Iran and Syria, and nearly 80 percent support an international conference on Iraq.

A majority also opposes keeping US forces in Iraq indefinitely and instead supports committing to a timetable for their withdrawal within two years or less, the poll found.

Wire services were used in this article.

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