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Iraqi Premier Meets Militants, Pushes Amnesty

Allawi Has Held Talks in Private

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 30, 2004; Page A18

BAGHDAD, Aug. 29 -- Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, said Sunday that he had held private meetings with representatives of insurgent groups from the restive cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra to persuade them to accept a government amnesty offer.

Allawi said the meetings, which began shortly after he assumed office in late June, have been intended to split the insurgency by luring lower-ranking members away from harder-core elements. Although he said he has not reached agreement with any of the groups, he insisted that some of the representatives are "changing horses . . . and taking the amnesty seriously."

Firefighters are dispatched to extinguish a fire at an oil pipeline south of the Iraqi city of Basra. (Atef Hassan -- Reuters)

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The meetings, some of which have occurred at Allawi's private home outside the highly fortified zone that houses the Iraqi government, are a risky and unconventional form of back-channel diplomacy. But they represent the most significant effort yet to address the insurgency through political rather than military means.

"I am meeting with them. Fallujah. Ramadi. I am talking to the people there, and we are reaching out to them, to tribes, to guys who were in military and security [services]," Allawi said in an interview with a half-dozen foreign newspaper correspondents. " 'There is an amnesty,' I'm telling them. 'Make use of it.' "

For all of his feisty promises to crush the insurgency with military force, Allawi appears to have concluded that forging peace deals with enemies may be better for him -- and his country.

A three-week confrontation with rebellious Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr in the holy city of Najaf was resolved on Friday after Allawi halted a U.S. military offensive and permitted the country's top Shiite leader to meet with Sadr. In a one-hour meeting, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani persuaded Sadr to order his militia to vacate a Shiite shrine and accept a set of conditions that mirrored the government's demands.

There were signs on Sunday that a peace agreement was within reach in the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, a stronghold of Moqtada Sadr's that has been wracked by violence for the past month and was not covered by Friday's deal in Najaf. After 10 people died in fighting in Sadr City on Saturday, a group of tribal sheiks allied with Sadr met with a U.S. military officer and an Iraqi police commander to hammer out a cease-fire deal.

An official with Sadr's political office, Ali Yassiri, said the talks were productive and would continue on Monday. "All the indications are that we will reach a positive step," he said.

Sadr's representatives are pushing for an arrangement similar to the one implemented in Najaf: Armed militiamen would leave the streets in exchange for a pullout of U.S. forces, leaving Iraqi police to maintain order.

But Yassiri said a disagreement remained over what would become of the weapons used by Sadr's militiamen. Sadr officials insist the firearms used by the militiamen are personal items that should be returned to their homes, while the U.S. military and the Iraqi police want all the weapons to be surrendered.

Near the northern city of Mosul, 37 civilians were injured on Sunday when insurgents attacked a military convoy with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms, the U.S. military command said in a statement.

In southern Iraq, saboteurs blew up a cluster of oil pipelines in the third major attack on the oil infrastructure in four days, reducing the country's crude exports to 500,000 barrels a day, less than a third of the average production volume, an official with the state-run South Oil Co. told the Associated Press.

The nihilistic nature of the oil sabotage appeared to baffle Allawi. "They don't have any reason for this," he said with a sigh. Unlike the insurgents, the prime minister does not view the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq as occupiers, but as the invited guests of his government. He said he found it difficult to comprehend what the insurgents wanted to achieve.

"They are not knowing how to express themselves but through violence and through violent behavior," he said. "We are trying to talk to them face-to-face and assure them that we are not here as Saddam [Hussein] to stay in power. There is a mandate for a short time. We are trying to get the country back on its feet, on the road to recovery."

In the latest attempt to get his message across to his enemies, Allawi said he met on Saturday with a delegation of 11 senior representatives from Samarra, a city about 65 miles north of Baghdad that has been roiled by insurgent attacks.

He said he posed "a really simple question" to the men from Samarra. "Tell us what you want, tell us exactly," he said he told the group. "If you need money, wait and you will have your jobs and start earning your money. The economic cycle will start. If you want to be rulers of this country, wait for the elections. . . . If you want to get the Americans out, fine. Do so, but have the consensus of the people in a proper way, not by forcing them."

Allawi did not identify the people with whom he met. He described them as not "the hard-core criminals" but as "people on the fringes who are disillusioned."

He insisted the meetings were not negotiations but opportunities for him to make a pitch to skeptics. "I am meeting them and telling them there is one thing to do: It is the respect of law, the rule of law," he said. "If you want to use violence, we will face you violently and suppress you -- and we will bring you to justice."

It is not clear how many people -- if any -- have taken up the government's amnesty offer. The offer is limited to people who have not directly participated in fatal attacks, limiting the number of eligible insurgents. Some Iraqi leaders had sought a broader amnesty, but U.S. officials, particularly the new American ambassador, John D. Negroponte, insisted that insurgents who killed Americans should not be pardoned.

Even if he has not been able to persuade insurgents to switch sides, Allawi said he believed he had made headway. In his meeting with the group from Samarra, "I said to them, and to [delegations from] Ramadi and Fallujah, 'Okay, for the sake of argument, let me assume that the multinational forces will leave. What do you think will happen?' You know what they answered? I swear to God, they said: 'Catastrophe. Iraq will be dismembered.' "

He paused for moment and then offered a bit of analysis. "When you squeeze them, then you put them to the corner," he said, "these are the answers."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company