Iraqi insurgents from Fallujah are in intense negotiations with the country's interim government to hand over control of the city to Iraqi troops, according to representatives of both sides, in hopes of averting a bloody military battle for the city of 300,000 that has become a haven for foreign guerrillas and a symbol of the limits of Baghdad's authority.
"We have met representatives from Fallujah," the interim deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, said Wednesday. "We have had detailed discussion with these representatives, and we have agreed on a road map or a framework to facilitate the resolution of this conflict in Fallujah."
The talks apparently gained momentum Wednesday after the mujaheddin shura -- or council of holy warriors -- that now governs Fallujah voted overwhelmingly to accept the broad terms demanded by Iraq's government. By a vote of 10 to 2, the council agreed to eject foreign fighters, turn over all heavy weapons, dismantle checkpoints and allow the Iraqi National Guard to enter the city.
In return, the city would not face the kind of U.S.-led military offensive that reclaimed the central Iraqi city of Samarra from insurgents last week, a prospect that one senior Iraqi official said clearly grabbed the attention of the Fallujah delegation.
U.S. troops would remain outside the city and end the airstrikes that have shaken residential neighborhoods on an almost daily basis in recent weeks, according to one account of the terms now on the table.
"The government -- the president, the prime minister and the defense minister -- are serious in trying to reach a peaceful solution, and we are, too," said Khalid Hamoud Jumaili, the leader of an insurgent group known as Mohammad's Army. Jumaili is one of six Fallujah residents who have been traveling to Baghdad in the past week to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff.
"Tomorrow I am going back to Fallujah to discuss some issues which are still not solved," Jumaili said in a brief telephone interview.
If a concrete agreement emerges -- and proves successful -- it would be a substantial boost for the interim government and for prospects for holding nationwide elections in January. Fallujah, an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim city, has been the fiercest of several areas that remain beyond the reach of Baghdad's authority. It is notorious as the staging base for a steady barrage of strikes aimed at Iraqi government personnel, especially security recruits.
Negotiations also appeared to be moving toward a peaceful settlement in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum and insurgent stronghold that has been an urban battlefield for weeks. The talks were being driven by local leaders in Sadr City, where a homegrown militia loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr is fighting a stubborn guerrilla campaign against U.S. Army armor and airstrikes.
Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, told reporters Wednesday that a committee was being formed to hash out the final terms of a deal to dismantle the Mahdi Army, Sadr's militia. Allawi's government, which authorized a U.S. offensive against Sadr's militia in the southern city of Najaf in August, has been trying to persuade Sadr to join the political process.
"No cease-fire," Allawi cautioned. "We responded positively to the request of the people of Sadr City. They will surrender their weapons to the authorities. They will dismantle any armed presence in the city. They will respect and abide by the rule of law in the city. They will welcome the police to go back, patrol the streets of the city."
Meanwhile, the wave of car bombings that has plagued Iraq for weeks continued Wednesday. A suicide car bomber plowed into an Iraqi military checkpoint in the town of Anah, near the Syrian border, killing 16 Iraqis and wounding 24.
Iraq's interim president, Ghazi Yawar, said in an interview this week that the Fallujah insurgents negotiating with the government "were more willing" to concede points after U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed Samarra on Friday. Yawar, a Sunni sheik, said he was approached by the Fallujah delegation, already deep in negotiations with a team led by Salih.
"I share both the ethnicity and the faith" of the delegation, Yawar observed. But in sketching out the military offensive that would come if an agreement were not reached, Yawar said, "I expressed my personal views that it's going to be severe and it's going to be harsh. I said it so they would understand the truth: They might be the next operation."
Substantial obstacles to the Fallujah deal remain.
A crucial element in the talks is the fate of foreign fighters, mostly Arabs who flocked to Iraq to fight American forces and found a haven in Fallujah, which Marines have not entered since April. In Wednesday's council vote, one of the dissenters was Omar Hadeed, a representative of Monotheism and Jihad, the organization headed by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi, who has asserted responsibility for kidnapping and killing several foreigners in Iraq and for ordering numerous suicide bomb attacks.
The other no vote was cast by a representative of a local insurgent. Both groups vowed to keep fighting regardless of any accord, a prospect that might draw U.S. forces into the city to reinforce the newly trained Iraqi troops, who have no armor or air force of their own.
Another looming question is how the city would rid itself of the foreigners. Several Fallujah residents said the fighters from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other nations are commonly regarded as intruders in a nationalist struggle. Their religious fanaticism -- including enforcement of a strict Islamic social code -- irks many residents and has caused a split with local insurgents, as reflected in the shura vote.
But the foreigners, many of whom arrived chasing a dream of martyrdom, are not known for compromising. "Those guys are there to die," said one senior Iraqi official.
Still, Yawar said in remarks to Arabic-language reporters late Wednesday that he was hopeful. "It's in the final stages," an aide said.
Ahmed Harden, another of the six Fallujah delegates to Baghdad, appeared on al-Jazeera television saying the deal was done.
"The Iraqi army will enter the city, and there will be cooperation between the people and this army," said Harden, a city council member chosen to speak for the city's educated classes in the negotiations. Other members were a tribal sheik, two former military officers and an imam who spoke for the city's religious leaders.
"This army will not hurt the people there; rather, its main aim is to protect this city," Harden said.
In the Sadr City stalemate, several Iraqi political parties, covetous of Sadr's following, have been lobbying the junior cleric. The U.S. 1st Cavalry Division, meanwhile, has relentlessly pursued his fighters. Explosions from airstrikes on Sadr City rumble across the Baghdad sky almost nightly.
As in Fallujah, agreement appeared to depend on keeping U.S. forces out of the area while asserting the authority of the new Iraqi security forces, which partially collapsed when the insurgency exploded across much of the country in April.
"We couldn't reach an agreement yet, but we in the Sadr office are optimistic," said Abdul Hadi Darraji, an aide to the cleric. "There are some issues that we disagree with the government about, and they are under discussion now. We want to reach a solution to end the crisis and to save the city from the attacks and airstrikes."
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti and Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.