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Leaders in Iraq Attempt to Engage Insurgents

Times Staff Writer

As a new national government has struggled to take shape, a variety of Iraqi power brokers in recent weeks have stepped up efforts to reach out to insurgents, seeking to persuade them to give up violence in favor of peaceful political opposition.

Previous attempts by Iraqi leaders and the U.S. military to engage insurgents in peace talks have roundly failed. And the steady stream of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings has been unaffected by the capture of Saddam Hussein, the appointment of an interim government and the election in January of a transitional national parliament.

The violence soared again this month with attacks throughout the country against Iraqi and American military installations, vehicle convoys and private aircraft. Nineteen bodies were found in a stadium northwest of Baghdad, and to the south, scores more have been pulled from the Tigris River.

The ability of insurgents to attack U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians is the same as it was a year ago, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week.

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Some Iraqi officials are hoping that the elected government will give them a credible argument to use against the insurgency: that far from being a puppet of America, it is a sovereign expression of the nation’s popular will.

“Many of the insurgents have kept fighting because they look at Iraq as an occupied country,” said Hachim Hassani, speaker of the National Assembly, or parliament, and one of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni Arabs. Hassani said high-level government officials had met with insurgent leaders since the Jan. 30 election. “Now we have a chance to convince them of Iraqi sovereignty.”

Even with a new government, convincing fighters to lay down their arms will be difficult because of the fragmented and brutal nature of the insurgency and the continued presence of about 150,000 U.S. and other foreign troops on Iraqi soil. In addition, there is a sense within Iraq’s Sunni minority that they have become marginalized in a nation they dominated, and some influential Sunnis have argued that no real dialogue can take place until the troops leave.

“The Muslim Scholars Assn. considers those who target the occupiers, and whoever assists the occupiers, as honest and respectable,” said Sheik Omar Raghib, a spokesman for the Sunni group.

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Other Sunni representatives, including National Assembly member Mishaan Jaburi, a former associate of Hussein who fled Iraq in the late 1980s, have argued for Sunni participation in the government.

“It is the only way to bring about peaceful struggle,” he said.

Shiites and Kurds, who dominate the new parliament and were brutally oppressed by Hussein’s Sunni-led Baath Party, have promised to include more Sunnis in the government. Both Shiite and Kurdish leaders say they have reached out to insurgent representatives in recent weeks.

Members of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite group, held a series of meetings with the Muslim Scholars Assn., which is believed to have contacts with insurgents, in an effort to quell the violence before the election.

The Kurds have held meetings with insurgent groups in northern Iraq.

“We started these efforts as political parties,” said Abdul Jalil Faili, a regional head in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two leading Kurdish parties. “But now we are speaking as elected government representatives. We started contacting them again a few days ago.”

The new efforts come as Iraqis continue to bear the brunt of the insurgency. Attacks against American soldiers were down 22% through March this year while the slaughter of Iraqi civilians and security forces is unabated. This has, in the view of many Iraqi officials and U.S. observers, diminished the rebels’ standing among the public.

Electoral politics is also driving Iraqi leaders to appeal to guerrillas and their sympathizers. Few Sunnis voted in January after calls for a boycott by their leaders. Now a number of national politicians, especially Sunnis, regard them as an untapped source of votes that could be significant in the election of a permanent government, which is scheduled for December.

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“We are in serious talks,” said Jaburi, one of the few Sunni lawmakers. “We may enter the next elections in a united slate.”

Jaburi has held frequent meetings in his Baghdad home with tribal leaders, clerics and former Baathists who have strong ties to the insurgents.

But with so many armed factions in Iraq, even Jaburi, who claims to “speak for the resistance,” has limited influence. Last weekend in Tikrit, a hotbed of the insurgency, a car bomber attempted to assassinate Jaburi, injuring four of his guards.

The most public overture the new government has made so far has been newly elected President Jalal Talabani’s call for an amnesty for insurgents. “Those who believe that what they have done is a manifestation of resisting the [U.S.-led] occupation, I call upon them to come and join the democratic process,” he told Asharq al Awsat newspaper.

Some Iraqi and U.S. officials say Talabani’s talk of amnesty signaled his desire for strong authority to negotiate with insurgents and his willingness to give former members of Hussein’s regime a share of political power. An amnesty policy could lead to the release of some Iraqi detainees and clear some former members of the Baath Party to run for office. Officials familiar with the proposal, however, say it is still a work in progress.

The idea has rankled some, especially those Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers planning to intensify efforts to keep ex-Baathists out of the new government.

“The government does not have the right to conduct negotiations with terrorists,” said Sheik Jalaluddin Saghir, a National Assembly member and a top aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric.

The tangle of opinions within the government will make negotiations with the insurgents more difficult, insiders say.

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“Messages are sent in different ways,” said Hassani, the parliament speaker. “The president’s amnesty plan was a kind of message to the insurgents -- and those who said he doesn’t have a right to give amnesty sent another kind of message.”

U.S. officials have been watching these overtures closely and are cautiously supportive -- with one major caveat: that no distinction be made between guerrillas who killed Americans and those who killed Iraqis.

“Those carrying money or who ran ammo and guns, or provided intelligence” would be acceptable for amnesty, a U.S. official said. “The distinction seems to be between those individuals, and those who actually took a gun and went out hunting for soldiers.”

For more than a year, the United States organized various talks with insurgent sympathizers. Some of the discussions have been led by top officials in the outgoing government, including interim Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Despite such efforts, attacks increased after the U.S.-backed Allawi took office last June. Lulls in the violence have usually been followed by large-scale bombings and organized attacks on U.S. and Iraqi armed forces.

One overarching obstacle is finding the right people to talk to, say those involved.

By most accounts, the Iraqi insurgency is a decentralized effort with scores of local cells operating almost independently. No single representative has emerged to articulate demands or deliver on promises.

Also, the new Iraqi government or the U.S.-led military may find it difficult to accommodate the insurgents’ demands.

In a sermon at Umm Qura Mosque this month, one of Baghdad’s largest Sunni houses of worship, Sheik Ahmad Abdul-Ghafoor Samarrai -- a top cleric in the Muslim Scholars Assn. -- called on Talabani to fulfill his amnesty promise to free prison detainees and to “do all that is possible to put a timetable for the withdrawal of the occupations from Iraq.”

Political observers here regarded the sermon as a message from insurgent groups.

“Their demands are very difficult to accomplish,” said Faili, the Kurdish leader. “Some prisoners are actually criminals who have killed Iraqis, and so it is unjust to free them.”

Another obstacle: The most prominent rebel groups, including that led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi, which has taken responsibility for numerous bombings, shootings and beheadings, have not been party to any official talks.

Iraqi efforts to reach out to insurgents have focused on ex-Baathists and nationalist elements in the hope that they will be able to isolate them from foreign militants and religious extremists who, most believe, must be crushed militarily.

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A special correspondent in Mosul contributed to this report.


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