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 Jan. 16.
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 did not.
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.