No-Timetable Policy Rules Out a Deal on Zarqawi

U.S. President George W. Bush’s adamant rejection of a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq effectively slams the door on a recent reported offer from Sunni resistance groups to eliminate the al-Qaeda terrorist haven in Iraq as part of a negotiated peace agreement.

At the recent Iraqi reconciliation meeting in Cairo, leaders of three Sunni armed organizations – the Islamic Army, the Bloc of Holy Warriors, and the Revolution of 1920 Brigades – told U.S. and Arab officials they were willing to track down terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and turn him over to Iraqi authorities as part of a negotiated settlement with the United States, according to the highly respected London-based Arabic-language al-Hayat newspaper.

Other press reports have confirmed the presence of Sunni resistance leaders on the fringes of the conference, and al-Hayat reporters were on the scene covering the conference.

Bush has effectively ruled out such an agreement with the insurgent groups by rejecting any negotiation on a withdrawal timetable. He again attacked the idea of "setting an artificial deadline" for withdrawal in his speech to naval cadets on Nov. 29.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad declared for the first time in an interview on ABC news last week that he was prepared to open negotiations with leaders of Sunni insurgent groups who are not Saddam loyalists or followers of Zarqawi.

But without any flexibility on the troop withdrawal issue, no real negotiations with the insurgents are possible. The demand for a withdrawal schedule has been the central negotiating demand of Sunni insurgent leaders ever since they began communicating their conditions for ending the armed resistance to U.S. officials early in 2005.

The capture of Zarqawi by Sunni insurgents would not end the terrorist-haven problem by itself, but that offer appears to shorthand for a broader proposal to attack and eliminate the foreign terrorist bases of operation in Iraq. U.S. intelligence has long been aware of a sharp rivalry and even occasional armed clashes between Sunni insurgent organizations and the foreign terrorists under Zarqawi’s leadership, despite their military cooperation against the occupation.

In the past, both the Sunni insurgents and Zarqawi’s followers have raised the possibility that the Sunni leaders would turn on the foreign jihadists if a peace agreement were reached with the United States. Last August, Saleh al-Mutlaq of the Sunni National Dialogue Council, which is sympathetic to the Sunni armed resistance, declared, "If the Americans reach an agreement with the local resistance, there won’t be any room for foreign fighters."

After the reports of contacts between the Sunni insurgents and U.S. officials surfaced last summer, the al-Qaeda organization in Iraq expressed serious concern about just such a possibility. An Internet posting by a follower of Zarqawi warned that if the Sunni insurgents ended their armed resistance, the insurgents would "exploit their knowledge of the mujahideen and their methods and their supply routes and they way they maneuver."

In 2005, the Sunni insurgents and Zarqawi have clashed over both possible peace negotiations and participation in the October referendum on the constitution. Organizations linked with Zarqawi warned as early as last spring against negotiating with the United States, and threatened to kill anyone who worked to turn out voters in the referendum. A coalition of larger insurgent groups called for maximizing the vote against the draft constitution.

The Sunni leaders told their U.S. contacts in Cairo they would not deliver Zarqawi to the U.S. forces, consistent with their demand that the U.S. military presence must be phased under any negotiated settlement, according to al-Hayat. A Pentagon source commented last week that it would "make perfect sense" that the Sunni insurgents don’t want to hand over either arms or foreign jihadists to the U.S., as a matter of nationalist pride.

Cooperation with a Shi’ite-dominated government on the foreign terrorist presence in Iraq, however, would require further negotiations between Sunni insurgent leaders and the government on protection of minority rights and other major political issues.

Negotiating with the major Sunni resistance organizations, once regarded as impossible, become a real option after Sunni intermediaries began passing on peace feelers from several of those organizations early in 2005. Guerrilla units once thought to be acting entirely independently of one another and without any program are now credited with the capability for common political action.

In July, Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway told reporters in Washington that the military had identified the top eight to 10 leaders of the insurgency and knew that they had met "occasionally" to "talk organization tactics." Some of those meetings are said to have taken place in Syria and Jordan.

After meetings between the insurgent leaders and U.S. military officers, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, said that the "preliminary talks" could lead to actual negotiations with insurgent groups.

Bush’s "declassified" war strategy reflects a much more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between Sunni insurgents and Zarqawi’s organization than is seen in past administration rhetoric.

Whereas Bush administration rhetoric has referred to the enemy only as "terrorists" and "Saddam loyalists" in the past, the document identifies a third group, the "rejectionists," who are said to represent most of those who have taken up arms against the occupation. It acknowledges that the "rejectionists" have goals that are "to some extent incompatible" with those of the terrorists.

The document, titled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," also hints that the Sunnis have legitimate Sunni concerns about the absence of any protection for minority rights in the constitution pushed through by Shi’ite party leaders.

Nevertheless, it suggests that there is no need for any compromise with the insurgency, because the U.S. and its Iraqi allies can play on divisions among the insurgent groups, drawing off some of them and controlling the rest. Bush declared in his speech on Iraq last week that the goal was to "marginalize the Saddamists and rejectionists."

According to source familiar with Defense Department thinking on the issue, a plan was adopted last summer for "negotiations" with insurgent groups that would offer no real compromise with them. Instead, the U.S. officials would offer withdrawal only if and as certain "conditions" were met, such as training and deployment of adequate government units to replace U.S. troops.

The marginalization strategy requires Shi’ite leaders to promise greater protection for Sunni rights through amending the constitution. "I think Khalilzad is gently nudging the government in the direction of negotiating with the Sunnis," said the Pentagon source.

The administration is unlikely to do anything more in contacts with Sunni insurgents until and unless a more accommodating Shi’ite leadership emerges from the Dec. 15 election, according to the source.

Meanwhile, no effort is being made to take advantage of an opportunity to do something concrete about the one issue which is of concern to the U.S. public. As the domestic political struggle over military withdrawal from Iraq heats up, the failure to pursue a timetable could eventually become an explosive issue for the Bush administration.

(Inter Press Service)

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.