Sunni Groups: US Weighed Offer to ‘Clean Up’ Militias

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad negotiated with Sunni armed groups for several weeks earlier this year on an agreement that would have supported Sunni forces in attacking pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias, according to accounts given by commanders of armed Sunni resistance organizations.

The revelations of the intensive U.S.-Sunni negotiations, reported by Hala Jaber in the Sunday Times of London Dec. 10, are consistent with an account of those negotiations provided by a Sunni participant last May in an interview with the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

But the new accounts make it clear for the first time that the main objective of the talks was to explore possible U.S. support for building a Sunni military force directed primarily against Shi’ites in Iraq.

The Bush administration never responded to the Sunni offer and resumed its support in April 2006 for fielding an almost exclusively Shi’ite and Kurdish army and paramilitary forces to suppress the Sunni resistance. The decision against any accommodation with the Sunni organizations made it virtually impossible for the United States to curb the rising tide of sectarian Shi’ite killings of Sunni civilians and the open sectarian civil war that has followed.

In the talks, the Sunnis assured the ambassador that the Sunni insurgents had sufficient manpower and knowledge to deal successfully with the problem of Shi’ite militias in Baghdad, which Khalilzad had begun to recognize as a serious policy problem for the Bush administration. "If he would just provide us with the weapons, we would clean up the city and regain control of Baghdad in 30 days," one insurgent leader was quoted as saying.

The Sunni participants did not refer to potential cooperation against al-Qaeda in Iraq and other jihadist terrorist networks in Iraq, but the organizations involved had parted ways with al-Qaeda on central issues and some insurgent leaders had reportedly offered in late 2005 to turn al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi over to the Iraqi government as part of a broader peace agreement.

The negotiations between Khalilzad and Sunni insurgents were said by the Sunni leaders to have been brokered by former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, at Khalilzad’s request. Allawi apparently convinced Sunni resistance leaders that they could find common ground with the United States over Iranian influence in the country, which was exercised through Shi’ite political parties and militias. Allawi established his bona fides with the Sunni resistance on the Iranian threat to Iraq by having his defense minister refer to the main Shi’ite list in the first parliamentary elections as the "Iranian list."

Throughout most of 2005, U.S. policymakers were ignoring warnings from Allawi and other nonsectarian Iraqis about the rise of Shi’ite militias, which were taking revenge against Sunnis for the Saddam Hussein regime’s harsh treatment of Shi’ites over more than three decades.

But in November 2005, Khalilzad began hinting strongly at a shift toward a "Sunni strategy." The U.S. embassy abruptly confronted Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari publicly over torture houses being run by Shi’ite officials of the Ministry of Interior and adopted a tough line against militant Shi’ite control over Iraqi security forces or ministries.

Khalilzad then announced in late November that he was ready to meet with insurgent leaders and wanted to "deal with their legitimate concerns." At the same time, the U.S. command began for the first time referring to the Sunni insurgents as "nationalists" rather than "anti-Iraqi forces." Khalilzad accused the Iranian have wanting regional hegemony, and the top U.S. military commander, Gen. George Casey said Iran was funding Shi’ite lists in the election.

Khalilzad openly criticized the sectarian nature of Iraq’s main parties and made no secret of the U.S. hope that the party of the secular Shi’ite Allawi, a longtime Central Intelligence Agency asset in Iraq who had been chosen by Washington as interim prime minister in June 2004, would get enough votes to play power broker in forming a new government.

After Allawi’s list did badly in the December elections, Khalilzad repeated his insistence that sectarian Shi’ites would not be allowed to control the interior ministry.

These were all signals aimed primarily at convincing Sunni resistance leaders that they could strike a deal with the United States. Three major Sunni armed organizations were interested in a possible agreement with the United States: the Army of Ansar al-Sunnah, the 1920 Revolutionary Brigade (an umbrella group for seven smaller organizations), and the Islamic Army of Iraq. The three groups claimed to represent three-fourths of the resistance forces.

The resistance groups interested in participating in the talks were all independent of former high officials of Saddam Hussein’s regime who directed anti-coalition guerrilla units. The forces loyal to Hussein remained outside the talks, demanding the reinstatement of Hussein’s military among other conditions for negotiations with the U.S., according to a senior Ba’athist representative quoted by the Sunday Times.

On Jan. 17, 2006, the three Sunni commanders met with Khalilzad for the first time in Allawi’s villa in Amman, Jordan, according to their account to the Sunday Times. They recalled that they expressed concern at that meeting about the Iran’s emergence as a new regional power, suggesting that the commonality of interest with the United States on that point represented the framework within which the talks continued.

A series of meetings were held over the next two months in Allawi’s home in Baghdad, according to their account, including some that stretched over two days. The earlier Sunni account of the talks published in Asharq al-Awsat said there were seven sets of meetings in all.

One of the Sunni resistance leaders told the Sunday Times they demanded the United States agree to a "timetable for withdrawal," but also said it would be "linked to the timescale necessary to rebuild Iraq’s armed forces and security services." Thus the Sunnis were in no hurry to see the U.S. forces leave, provided that they were supporting a Sunni reintegration into the military.

The Sunni leaders demanded amnesty for insurgents and a reversal of the "de-Ba’athification" policy that the Shi’ite parties were pushing strongly. Khalilzad expressed sympathy for those demands in the talks, they recalled. The Sunni proposal put particular emphasis on the need to put nonsectarian officials in charge of the Ministries of Interior and Defense, so that Sunnis could occupy upper echelons in a reconstituted army and police force.

The Sunni leaders finally broke off the negotiations with Khalilzad in late April after he failed respond to a "memorandum of understanding" they had given him nearly two months earlier.

But the U.S. embassy participated in peace talks between representatives of the 1920 Revolution Brigade and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani beginning in April. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s "national reconciliation plan" included as one its key points language apparently agreed in those talks for "a time schedule to pull out the troops from Iraq, while at the same time building up the Iraqi forces that will guarantee Iraqi security."

However, despite these repeated attempts by the Sunni resistance organizations to negotiate a settlement with the United States and the Iraqi government, the much-anticipated Iraq Study Group report released last week dismissed the option of an agreement with the Sunnis to end the resistance based on a time schedule for withdrawal.

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Gareth Porter

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in
U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils
of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam
, was
published in 2006.