The United States has backed away from high-level
peace negotiations with Sunni insurgent groups after meeting with them regularly
over several weeks in January and February, according to an insurgent leader.
Evidence of wavering by the George W. Bush administration over the negotiations
came from the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, which reported
Tuesday that Sunni resistance organizations had just broken off secret talks
with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad because of the U.S. failure to respond to a
peace proposal from the insurgents.
The Arab-language newspaper reported that the leader of a Sunni insurgent group
had revealed in an interview that representatives of more than 10 prominent
Iraqi insurgent organizations had met with Khalilzad seven times starting on
However, the insurgent leader said that the United States had never responded
to a memorandum of understanding presented to Khalilzad around Mar. 1, despite
a promise to do so before the formation of a new government. He said the insurgents
had decided to end the talks and had delivered a memo to the US Embassy on Apr.
29 informing the United States of the decision.
The story was carried by Associated Press Wednesday with a Dubai dateline.
The US Embassy had no immediate comment on the report, which has not yet been
published in major international media.
The insurgent leader indicated that the proposal included provisions for a
US troop withdrawal, which Pres. Bush has repeatedly rejected in the past. However,
Khalilzad was well aware that a timeline for US withdrawal was the centerpiece
of the insurgents' negotiating position from previous contacts with the insurgents
and proceeded with the talks anyway.
A document posted on a London-based Iraqi exile group's internet site, which
was said by Sunni sources with links to the insurgent groups to have reflected
a consensus among major armed organizations on a negotiated settlement, calls
for dismantling of insurgent units "immediately after the full withdrawal
of US and other foreign forces." Both are to be carried out within six
months of an agreement.
It seems unlikely that Khalilzad would have met with the insurgents seven times
in roughly six weeks if he had not been prepared to consider a peace plan that
involved a timeline for US withdrawal. Bush, who approved Khalilzad's talks
with the insurgents, also knew that troop withdrawal would be part of any agreement.
A more plausible explanation for the failure to respond to the insurgents'
proposal is that military commanders and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
balked at the peace proposal given to the ambassador in late February or early
March and prevailed on Pres. Bush to back away from the talks.
Khalilzad has been at odds with the military and the Pentagon over the direction
of US policy in Iraq for several months. At least since October, Khalilzad has
been pursuing a strategy of seeking an accommodation with Sunnis and putting
pressure on the Shi'ites to curb the militias.
Just before and after the December parliamentary election in Iraq, Khalilzad,
evidently with White House approval, got tough with the militant Shi'ite leaders
about the threat of sectarian militias. He also began talking openly about Iran's
aspirations for regional hegemony and its influence in Iraq at the same time
that reporters were being told that Iran was funneling money to the Shi'ite political
parties in the election.
During the period in which Khalilzad was negotiating intensively with the Sunni
insurgents, and in the weeks that followed, he was threatening to withdraw US
support from the government if the Shi'ites did not give up their control over
the all-important interior ministry. In an interview with Knight Ridder on Feb.
20, he said, "We are not going to invest the resources of the American
people to build forces run by people who are sectarian."
After the dramatic increase in sectarian violence following the bombing of
the Shi'ite temple in late February, Khalilzad began to argue explicitly that
the main problem in Iraq was not the Sunni insurgency but the influence of militant
Shi'ites exercized through militias. In March he said, "more Iraqis are
dying today from militia violence than from the terrorists."
Clearly identifying sectarian militias as the primary threat in Iraq could
be a justification for continuing negotiations aimed at making peace with the
insurgents should the White House accept such a policy.
But that line was apparently not supported by Rumsfeld's Pentagon or by most
military commanders in Iraq. They were focused on the mission of creating an
Iraqi army that could carry on the war against the Sunni insurgents, which they
now define as military success in Iraq.
The Pentagon officials and the US command in Iraq had ignored a series of warnings
from Iraqi and US Embassy officials about the rapidly growing power of sectarian
primarily Shi'ite militias in 2004 and 2005. Tom Lasseter of Knight
Ridder reported Apr. 17 that the Iraqi interior minister from June 2004 to April
2005, Falah al-Naquib, said he personally raised the militia problem with Rumsfeld
and others, but, "They didn't take us seriously."
The US command's spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch admitted at a briefing last
month that the problem of militias "wasn't a problem set we focused on."
Adopting a firm policy against Shi'ite militias would have conflicted with the
main interest of military command and the Pentagon, because it would have reduced
political support for the prosecution of the war against the Sunnis insurgents.
The circumstantial evidence suggests that the policy debate within the administration
over the issue of redefining US priorities in Iraq was closely related to the
consideration by the White House of the insurgents' peace proposal during the
same March-April period.
Khalilzad clearly wanted a decision that the insurgency had now been eclipsed
by the problem of sectarian violence. Others in the administration preferred
to avoid any clear choice between the two problems. The two positions on that
question were almost certainly related to the more immediate issue of what to
do about a peace proposal from the insurgents that requires a timeline for US
withdrawal. Khalilzad wanted to continue negotiating on the proposal; the military
The struggle over peace negotiations thus provides the political backdrop for
an unusual joint statement by Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey, the senior
US commander in Iraq, which was published in the Los Angeles Times Apr. 11.
Ostensibly yet another administration exhortation to the public to stay the
course in Iraq, that statement contains a carefully worded compromise on the
issue of US priorities. It states that "the principle threat to stability
is shifting from an insurgency grounded in rejection of the new political order
to sectarian violence grounded in mutual fears and recriminations."
The compromise formula of a shift in priorities that is underway but not complete
suggests that the Pentagon prevailed on Pres. Bush to pull back from negotiating
a ceasefire and eventual troop withdrawal now. Considering that the embassy
has not informed the its contacts in the insurgency that there can be no deal,
however, that same compromise may mean that Pres. Bush is reluctant to preclude
peace negotiations in the future.