SECRET talks in which senior American officials came face-to-face with some of their most bitter enemies in the Iraqi insurgency broke down after two months of meetings, rebel commanders have disclosed.
The meetings, hosted by Iyad Allawi, Iraq’s former prime minister, brought insurgent commanders and Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, together for the first time.
After months of delicate negotiations Allawi, a former Ba’athist and a secular Shi’ite, persuaded three rebel leaders to travel to his villa in Amman, the Jordanian capital, to see Khalilzad in January.
“The meetings came about after persistent requests from the Americans. It wasn’t because they loved us but because they didn’t have a choice,” said a rebel leader who took part.
Last week the long-awaited report of the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker, the former secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, a former congressman, called for America to seek to engage with all parties in Iraq, with the exception of Al-Qaeda.
However, the insurgents’ account of the hushed-up meetings reveals that concerted attempts to engage them in negotiations had already failed earlier this year.
Hopes were high when the insurgent leaders greeted Khalilzad in Amman. The Iraqis had just held their first democratic elections for a permanent government and the US ambassador hoped to broker an enduring political settlement.
Feelers had been put out to Iraqi insurgents before but not at such a high level. “The Americans had been flirting with such meetings for a while, but they needed to sit down with people who carried more weight in the insurgency,” said one leader of the National Islamic Resistance, an umbrella organisation representing some of the main insurgent groups.
The trio of Iraqi negotiators claimed to represent three-quarters of the “resistance”. It included Ansar al- Sunnah, the group responsible for a suicide bombing that killed 22 in a US army canteen in Mosul in December 2004, and also the 1920 Revolution Brigade, which has carried out many kidnappings and claimed to have shot down a British Hercules aircraft near Tikrit in January 2005, in which 10 people died.
At the first meeting with Khalilzad on January 17, the insurgents expressed concern about the emergence of Iran as a new regional power. With America equally worried about Iranian interference, the two sides appeared to have found some common ground. The talks continued in Baghdad for about eight weeks, sometimes on consecutive days at Allawi’s home.
At one point the insurgents offered Khalilzad a 10-day “period of grace” in which attacks on coalition forces would be suspended in return for a cessation of US military operations.
They called for a “timetable for withdrawal”, saying that it should be announced immediately although in practice it would be “linked to the timescale necessary to rebuild Iraq’s armed forces and security services”, according to one commander.
Other demands said to have been received sympathetically by Khalilzad, such as an amnesty for insurgents and a reversal of the “de-Ba’athification” process that stripped so many Sunnis of their jobs, have now been urged by the Iraq Study Group.
There was more. Brushing aside the results of Iraq’s democratic elections, the insurgents proposed that an emergency government be formed under Allawi’s leadership. Non-sectarian politicians should be appointed to the crucial ministries of defence and the interior, they urged, because they would be responsible for rebuilding a strong national army and security service. Under this proposal, the newly elected Iraqi government would, in effect, have been sidelined.
“I told Khalilzad that we had the know-how and the manpower to regain control of Baghdad and rid it of the pro-Iranian militias,” one of the insurgent commanders added.
“If he would just provide us with the weapons, we would clean up the city and regain control of Baghdad in 30 days.”
The atmosphere eventually soured at a meeting said to have been attended by Khalilzad and six US generals as well as tribal leaders from Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala and other hotspots. Each side apparently accused the other of stepping up attacks during the supposed period of grace and the insurgents refused to have lunch with the generals on the grounds that they were military occupiers.
The talks were further complicated by the different demands of warring Sunni rebel groups. A close associate of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam Hussein’s former vice-president and the king of clubs in the US “most wanted” deck of playing cards, said that many of the insurgent groups were still being directed by Saddam’s former party and military leadership.
According to a senior Ba’athist representative, insurgent groups linked to al-Douri would not sit down with the Americans unless they first agreed to a series of other conditions ranging from compensation for Iraq’s losses during the war to the reinstatement of Saddam’s military.
The final blow to the negotiations came in mid-March when Khalilzad said that he would be willing to talk to Iran about resolving the conflict in Iraq. The news came as a bombshell to the Sunni insurgents, who complained to the ambassador at their final meeting.
Shortly afterwards the government of Nouri al-Maliki was formed with the support of pro-Iranian elements. The Sunni insurgents responded by sending a memo to Khalilzad — now tipped to become US ambassador to the United Nations — suspending all meetings and accusing the Americans of “dishonesty”.
According to one commander, the insurgent groups were told: “Place your faith in Allah, the gloves are off. Carry on with your resistance.”
A US embassy spokesman in Baghdad yesterday declined to comment on the talks but said America remained committed to the current government and to “an inclusive Iraqi political process, with representatives from all Iraq’s communities”.