The London Sunday Times June 26, 2005
US 'in talks with Iraq with Iraq rebels'
Insurgents reveal secret face-to-face meetings
By Hala Jaber
AT a summer villa near Balad in the hills 40 miles north of Baghdad, a group of Iraqis and their American visitors recently sat down to tea. It looked like a pleasant social encounter far removed from the stresses of war, but the heavy US military presence around the isolated property signalled that an unusual meeting was taking place.
After weeks of delicate negotiation involving a former Iraqi minister and senior tribal leaders, a small group of insurgent commanders apparently came face to face with four American officials seeking to establish a dialogue with the men they regard as their enemies.
The talks on June 3 were followed by a second encounter 10 days later, according to an Iraqi who said that he had attended both meetings. Details provided to The Sunday Times by two Iraqi sources whose groups were involved indicate that further talks are planned in the hope of negotiating an eventual breakthrough that might reduce the violence in Iraq.
Despite months of American military assaults on supposed insurgent bases, General John Abizaid, the regional US commander, admitted to Congress last week that opposition strength was “about the same” as six months ago and that “there’s a lot of work to be done against the insurgency”.
That work now includes secret negotiations with rebel leaders, according to the Iraqi sources.
Washington seems to be gingerly probing for ways of defusing home-grown Iraqi opposition and of isolating the foreign Islamic militants who have flooded into Iraq to wage holy war against America under the command of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The talks appear to represent the first serious effort by Americans and Iraqi insurgents to find common ground since violence intensified in the spring. Earlier informal contacts were reported but produced no perceptible progress.
Zarqawi’s group, which has been blamed for many suicide bombings and beheadings, has not taken part.
According to both Iraqi sources, preparations for this month’s meetings were supervised by Ayham al-Samurai, a Sunni Muslim and former exile who lived in America for 20 years. He returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein to become electricity minister in the interim government.
One of his main challenges was to persuade both sides that they could meet without being ambushed. Both eventually provided pledges that no hostile acts would be attempted.
The American contingent is said to have arrived in a convoy of four armoured Humvee vehicles and at least two armoured personnel carriers. The military escort remained outside the compound while the four US negotiators were greeted by tribal sheikhs who had agreed to host the meeting.
The Pentagon had no immediate comment to make on the Iraqi claims despite repeated requests for confirmation.
The Iraqi sources, who have proved reliable in the past, said the American team included senior military and intelligence officers, a civilian staffer from Congress and a representative of the US embassy in Baghdad.
On the rebel side were representatives of insurgent groups including Ansar al-Sunna, which has carried out numerous suicide bombings and killed 22 people in the dining hall of an American base at Mosul last Christmas.
Also represented was the so-called Islamic Army in Iraq, which murdered Enzo Baldoni, an Italian journalist, last August; the Iraqi Liberation Army; Jaish Mohammed and other smaller factions. According to an Iraqi commander, one of the Americans introduced himself as “a representative of the Pentagon” and declared himself ready to “find ways of stopping the bloodshed on both sides and to listen to demands and grievances”.
The US officer also indicated that the contents of any discussion would be relayed to his superiors in Washington.
The Americans were then said to have launched into a lengthy session of questioning about the structure of the insurgency, which is far from a unified entity.
Coalition military intelligence has identified at least four separate strands of anti-American opposition, including Zarqawi’s jihadists, former members of Saddam’s regime, Sunni Arab nationalists and criminal gangs.
The links between these groups remain murky and the American team began to irritate the Iraqis with what some saw as a crude attempt to gather intelligence. They asked questions about the “hierarchy and logistics of the groups, how they functioned, how orders were dispatched, how they divide their work and so on”, the Iraqi source said.
“It was a boring line of questioning that indicated an attempt to discover more about their enemy than about finding solutions,” one of the sources added. “We told the translator to inform them that if they persisted with this line we would all walk out of the meeting.”
The Iraqis had agreed beforehand to focus on their main demand, “a guaranteed timetable of American withdrawal from Iraq”, the source said. “We told them it did not matter whether we are talking about one year or a five-year plan but that we insisted on having a timetable nonetheless.”
The demand did not meet with a favourable response from the American team, perhaps because a timetable is the one thing that President George W Bush has declared he will not agree to.
Both Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, insisted last week that setting a timetable would be an invitation to the insurgents to “wait us out”, as the president put it.
Ibrahim al-Jafaari, the Iraqi prime minister, also rejected a timetable during his first visit to the White House on Friday. Bush reassured him: “This is an enemy that will be defeated . . . You don’t have to worry, Mr Prime Minister, about timetables.”
The insurgents went on to demand US compensation for the damage caused by the American military occupation. One group put in a bid for Saddam to be restored to power, but not even his colleagues appeared to be taking that seriously.
The original discussion is said to have lasted for an hour and a half and to have broken up with the US team explaining that it would need to consult Washington. But one American official apparently asked whether the insurgents would be interested in disarming in return for a release of all Iraqi prisoners in US military camps.
The Iraqi side immediately reverted to its demand for a timetable and the only agreement of the afternoon was to meet again.
At the second meeting, the Iraqi sources added, two little known insurgent groups were present. They were introduced as Thawarat al-Ishreen and the Shoura Council of Mujahideen.
This meeting did not go well. “The tone of the Americans was different,” the Iraqi insider said. “They were talking with a tone of more superiority, arrogance and provocation.”
After a discussion about Al-Qaeda activities, the Americans bluntly advised the Iraqis to “cease all support, logistics and cover for Zarqawi’s group”. Only if links to Al-Qaeda were severed would the Americans be ready to discuss Iraqi demands.
“Our response was that we will never abandon any Muslim who has come to our country to help us defend it,” the commander said.
“That was a right and prerogative of ours, just as they felt they had the right to ally themselves with other foreign nations in a coalition force to invade Iraq.”
The meeting reached another inconclusive end but the two sides agreed to keep talking, the Iraqi source said. The insurgents said they had asked for a United Nations representative to attend the next round.
US spokesmen in Baghdad said they were unable to comment yesterday and al-Samurai did not return calls. But if confirmed, the talks could indicate a new willingness by American officials to negotiate a breakthrough in the conflict, in which 1,735 US soldiers and thousands of Iraqis have died. At least 12 Iraqi policemen died in the latest attacks yesterday.
Time magazine reported in February that a meeting had taken place between one representative of the insurgents and two US military officials. Earlier this month it was claimed that indirect negotiations had begun through an intermediary.
The meetings described to The Sunday Times appear to have been the first formal talks between the two sides.
An interior ministry official in Baghdad said he was not aware of the two encounters but knew that the Pentagon and State Department had been anxious to talk to insurgent leaders for some time.
“The Americans want to expedite this matter of talks with the insurgents,” said Dr Sabah Kathim, the ministry’s senior spokesman.
“They initially thought they could win it through military operations and now they have come to realise that the military option will not provide them with the solution, so they are going for the political option as well.”
Regional specialists in Washington said they were not surprised to learn of secret contacts between the coalition and the insurgents, but the main question was whether they would find any area of potential agreement.
“Any arrangement that would enable them to claim they had chased the Americans out of the country would not get much of a hearing in Washington,” said John Pike
of Globalsecurity.org. “And neither side can be too sure of who exactly they are dealing with. It’s too early to say if this is going anywhere.”
Pike speculated that the insurgents might offer to stop fighting if the Americans agreed to an amnesty, but any deal would be hard to monitor.
Other experts suggested the mediating role of Iraq’s tribal sheikhs showed that Sunni leaders were tiring of the violence but dared not say so publicly for fear of being seen as American stooges.
“My gut hunch is that the tribal leadership are practical men of affairs,” one specialist said. “Their view is that the insurgency is bad for business, but they can’t come out and say that without risking a bullet in the head.”
Bush acknowledged on Friday that “the way ahead is not going to be easy” and for once the Iraqi insurgent commander agreed with him.
“It looks like the Americans are in big trouble in Iraq and are desperate to find a way out,” the commander said. “Why else would they have rounds of negotiations with people they label as terrorists?”
Additional reporting: Ali Rifat, Baghdad, Tony Allen-Mills, Washington
© Copyright 2005, Times Newspapers Ltd