The U.S. military in Iraq has been holding face-to-face meetings with some Iraqi leaders of the insurgency there, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the U.S. commander in charge of Iraq confirmed yesterday.
The talks are part of the military's revised campaign to drive a wedge between the Iraqi and foreign insurgents, according to U.S. commanders. Pentagon officials have acknowledged the new strategy but have not, until now, spoken openly about efforts to make contact with some Iraqi insurgent leaders.
Asked to respond to a report that U.S. military representatives had meetings with several Sunni Iraqi insurgents twice in June, Rumsfeld told Fox News that "there have probably been many more than that" and described the contacts as an effort to "split people off and get some people to be supportive" of the political process in Iraq.
Other parts of the U.S. government, including the State Department and CIA, have also been holding secret meetings with Iraqi insurgent factions in an effort to stop the violence and coax them into the political process, according to U.S. government officials and others who have participated in the efforts.
The military plan, approved in August 2004, seeks to make a distinction between Iraqi insurgents who are attacking U.S. troops because they are hostile to their presence, and foreign insurgents who are responsible for most of the suicide bombings -- which have killed more than 1,200 people in the past couple of months -- and whose larger political aims are unclear.
Gen. John P. Abizaid, who as commander of the U.S. Central Command is in charge of the war in Iraq, told CNN yesterday that "U.S. officials and Iraqi officials are looking for the right people in the Sunni community to talk to in order to ensure that the Sunni Arab community becomes part of the political process. And clearly we know that the vast majority of the insurgents are from the Sunni Arab community. It makes sense to talk to them."
But, Abizaid added, "we're not going to compromise with Zarqawi." That was a reference to Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who is believed to be leading that part of the insurgency involving foreign fighters, particularly Islamic extremists arriving from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen and elsewhere.
Rumsfeld compared the meetings to those Afghan President Hamid Karzai held with the Taliban, against whom the United States waged war in 2001. "The same thing's going on in Iraq," he said.
Rumsfeld and Abizaid were responding to an article in the Sunday Times of London, which reported yesterday that the meetings were held on June 3 and 13 at a summer villa near Balad, 40 miles north of Baghdad. Citing two Iraqi sources, the newspaper said that among the Sunnis in attendance were representatives from the Ansar al-Sunna Army, which killed 22 people in the dining hall of a U.S. base at Mosul, and the Islamic Army in Iraq, which asserted responsibility for the killing of Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni.
The newspaper said the insurgents "had agreed beforehand to focus their main demand" on a guaranteed timetable of U.S. withdrawal. "We told them it did not matter whether we are talking about one year or a five-year plan but that we insisted on having a timetable nonetheless," one of the Iraqi sources was quoted as saying.
The newspaper said the meetings were supervised by Ayham al-Samurai, a Sunni Muslim who lived in the United States for 20 years and returned to Iraq to become electricity minister in the new government. The meeting included a senior military and a senior intelligence officer, a civilian staff aide from Congress and a representative of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Time magazine reported in February on a similar but more informal meeting.
Rumsfeld, speaking in general about contacts with the Iraqi insurgents, said they were part of an effort to include Sunni factions that had forsaken the nascent Iraqi political process but may now have a change of heart. "The Sunnis made a mistake not participating in the election as fully as they could have," Rumsfeld said. "They now know that. They said they've made a mistake. They're leaning in."
"They're not going to try to bring in the people with blood on their hands, for sure," Rumsfeld told NBC's "Meet the Press." "But they're certainly reaching out continuously, and we help to facilitate those from time to time. . . . The goal is to get people all moved toward the support of the government."
Rumsfeld acknowledged that there is no military solution to ending the insurgency and that the talks with Iraqi insurgents were part of a search for a political solution to the war. "I mean, foreign troops are not going to beat the insurgency," he said. "It's going to be the Iraqi people that are going to beat the insurgency and Iraqi security forces. That's just the nature of an insurgency."
He also pointed out, on Fox News, that "insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, 10, 12 years."
Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.