U.S. trying to widen Iraqi rebel split with Al Qaeda

Posted in Iraq | 09-Jan-06 | Author: Dexter Filkins and Sabrina Tav| Source: International Herald Tribune

An Iraqi policeman holds his rifle near the wreckage of a car after a suicide bombing attack southeast of Baghdad January 6, 2006.
BAGHDAD U.S. officials are talking with local Iraqi insurgent leaders to exploit a rift that has opened between homegrown insurgents and radical groups like Al Qaeda, and to draw the local leaders into the political process, according to a Western diplomat, an Iraqi political leader and an Iraqi insurgent leader.

Clashes between Iraqi groups and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia have broken out in several cities across the Sunni Triangle, including Taji, Yusefiya, Qaim and Ramadi, and they appear to have intensified in recent months, according to interviews with insurgents and with U.S. and Iraqi officials.

In a recent interview, a Western diplomat who supports the talks said the Americans had opened face-to-face discussions with insurgents in the field and were communicating with senior insurgent leaders through intermediaries.

The diplomat said the goal was to take advantage of rifts in the insurgency, particularly between local groups, whose main goal is to expel U.S. forces, and the more radical groups, like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which have alienated many Iraqis by the mass killing of Iraqi civilians.

Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, led by Musab al-Zarqawi, is believed to be responsible for most of the car and suicide bombings.

The talks, which the diplomat said were taking place "inside and outside Iraq," began in the autumn, around the time of the referendum on the new Iraqi Constitution on Oct. 15. U.S. officials had made contact with insurgent groups before, but the diplomat described the new engagement as much more significant.

The effort comes as political leaders await the results of the Dec. 15 election, which will determine the shape of the next government.

The diplomat said the talks were aimed at taking advantage of a new willingness to take part in politics among Sunni Arabs, who went to the polls in large numbers for the first time. Their full participation is seen as an essential step in quelling the insurgency, which is led mostly by radical Sunni Arabs.

The diplomat said he did not harbor any illusions about securing the immediate surrender of the insurgent groups, or even a cease-fire.

Few details of the talks were available.

Tarik al-Hashimy, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, who said he was in periodic contact with insurgent leaders and had asked them to hold their fire during the December elections, said he did not think the talks had made much progress.

One of the main obstacles, Hashimy said, was the demand by the insurgents for a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces, which President George W. Bush has repeatedly refused.

But the Western diplomat said he hoped to begin to convince insurgent groups that the new government, which is expected to contain a number of Sunni leaders, is worthy of their support.

"According to Islamic doctrine as well as democratic principles, there cannot be a legitimate resistance against a legitimate government," the diplomat said. "If we could reach an understanding with each other, meaning the resistance, as they call it, and the coalition, then they will in turn take care of Zarqawi and the terrorists."

The diplomat did not specify which groups the Americans were talking with. But it seemed likely that they included groups like the Islamic Army in Iraq and Muhammad's Army, which are believed to comprise mainly Iraqi nationalists and former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Their primary goal is to expel the Americans, a wish that is broadly held among Sunnis. The objectives of Al Qaeda are much broader, including using Iraq as the springboard to re-establish the Islamic caliphate that once reigned over the Middle East.

In interviews, Iraqi insurgents say there is widespread hatred for Al Qaeda among ordinary Iraqis. The insurgents blame Al Qaeda for the bloody car bombs and suicide attacks that have killed thousands of civilians. While Al Qaeda's rank and file includes mostly Iraqis, the leadership is believed to contain many foreigners like Zarqawi, a Jordanian.

"We are Iraqis, and Al Qaeda came from outside our borders," said Abu Omar, the nom de guerre of a member of the Islamic Army in Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. "They defame the name of the noble resistance inside Iraq."

U.S. and Iraqi officials regard the strife among the guerrillas as presenting an especially promising opportunity, in part because of the large turnout of Sunni voters in the election.

Ranya Kadri contributed reporting from Amman.