Iraqi and U.S. Officials in Secret Talks with Iraqi Insurgents

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 18

In their continued effort to curb the Iraqi insurgency and drive a deeper wedge between homegrown Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaeda in Iraq, top U.S. and Iraqi officials announced that they had held secret talks with indigenous Iraqi insurgents over the past several months. Recent statements by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other top al-Qaeda officials heavily criticized the Iraqi political process, revealing a real concern that Iraqi insurgent groups will join the political process instead of contributing to al-Qaeda’s mission (al-Jazeera, April 30).

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani recently announced that he has held talks with seven Iraqi armed groups in Dukan about their integration in the political process. Urging them to cease attacks against the emerging Iraqi government, he pushed them to join the political process and the state security services. In a statement released by his office, Talabani stated, “There are groups other than the Saddamists and Zarqawists who joined armed operations to fight the occupation, and we are trying to establish a dialogue with them so they will join the political process” (Asharq al-Awsat, May 2). This was the first time an Iraqi official had admitted to meeting insurgent leaders. Talabani was hopeful that an agreement could be reached with the leaders of these armed groups. Talabani, however, rejected negotiations with “Zarqawists and Saddamists,” meaning al-Qaeda and hardcore Saddam loyalists (al-Hayat, May 2). Neither Talabani nor his spokesman provided details on which groups entered into talks with the Iraqi government. Although Talabani’s office has not confirmed who was involved in the talks, there have been contradictory reports on which groups participated.

Major Iraqi insurgent groups, such as the Islamic Army in Iraq, Jaish Mohammed and the Iraqi Resistance Islamic Front, have consistently denied taking part in talks with the Iraqi government. Dr. Ibrahim al-Shammari, official spokesman for the Islamic Army in Iraq, said, “Our stand on the political process is clear. We oppose this process…we believe that no political action can succeed under the occupation…Our strategic objective is to confront the occupation with armed force” (al-Jazeera, April 30).

Al-Shammari also denied reports that representatives from insurgent groups have met with President Talabani and others. He said, “How can we negotiate with this government while we have not recognized its legitimacy from the beginning?…We did not meet with the U.S. ambassador, did not go to Dukan and we will not negotiate with the government because we do not recognize it” (al-Jazeera, April 30).

The Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) also denied that insurgent groups had met with Talabani. The AMS contends Sunni insurgent groups will only talk to the government about a U.S. military departure, the disarmament of militias and nothing more and certainly not about halting their military operations against coalition forces.

These denials are contradicted not only by reports from Talabani and coalition offices, but by other prominent Sunni politicians. Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, told al-Hayat that Jaish Mohammed was one of the groups that met with Talabani (al-Hayat, May 2). Another prominent Sunni politician with the Iraqi National Accord (INA) anonymously confirmed to al-Hayat that insurgent dialogue with the president’s office did indeed occur. Although President Talabani denied meeting with “Saddamists,” the INA member, himself a former Baathist, stated that former Baathist groups were among the insurgents (al-Hayat, May 2).

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad also announced that he had held separate secret talks with Iraqi insurgent groups. Some Iraqi insurgent groups have shown a greater willingness to meet with U.S. military officials than with the new Iraqi government. Insurgents have repeatedly accused the Iraqi government of serving as puppets of the United States and do not recognize the political process as legitimate and view the Iraqi government as sectarian.

Iraqi insurgents confirmed the U.S. ambassador’s announcement in al-Sharq al-Awsat that seven meetings occurred between the “Secret Organization of the Iraqi Resistance” and Ambassador Khalilzad in Baghdad and Amman since January, but that they had no connection with the talks with Talabani. According to an unnamed representative of the Secret Organization of the Iraqi Resistance, more than 10 prominent insurgent groups participated in the talks.

At these talks, insurgents presented a memorandum of understanding to Khalilzad to which, according to the insurgents’ anonymous spokesman, the United States was mostly responsive despite some reservations they had on some of the points. The Secret Organization of the Iraqi Resistance, however, suspended talks after the formation of the unity government. They also denied that their talks with the United States had anything to do with separate talks with Talabani’s office (Asharq al-Awsat, May 2).

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s April 25 video statement warned members of the Iraqi insurgency against holding talks with U.S. and Iraqi officials. Describing Iraqi Sunni Arabs who take part in the political process as agents, al-Zarqawi urges Iraqi insurgents to continue their armed resistance and cooperation with al-Qaeda. Is al-Zarqawi’s statement just a precaution, or is he nervous that the Iraqi government and U.S. officials are making headway in their effort to lure Iraqi insurgents away from al-Qaeda’s influence? There is a great deal of speculation that al-Zarqawi made such a bold appearance precisely because of the progress in the political process and impending formation of the new Iraqi government.

There appears to be an increasing divide between al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents and those who have shown a willingness to talk with either the United States or the new government. This has been a concerted effort by the coalition to pull away Sunni Arab nationalists from al-Qaeda. President Talabani’s security advisor explained to al-Arabiya television that the recent talks were an attempt to drive a wedge between “religious zealots” and political insurgents.

Although the Iraqi insurgents are not satisfied with the new shape of the Iraqi government, many of the insurgents are nationalists, at least the ones that have entered into talks with the Iraqi government and coalition. Al-Zarqawi released video clips that anticipated a declaration of an Islamic emirate in Iraq within three months. Whether or not that will happen can be disputed, but it rearticulates al-Qaeda’s intentions for Iraq. This vision does not mesh with the goals of Iraq’s nationalist insurgents (al-Sharqiyah, May 5). Iraqi officials believe that by integrating indigenous Iraqi insurgent groups in the political process, it will deteriorate al-Qaeda’s support and capability to conduct operations within Iraq.

President Talabani extended an olive branch last year and offered to meet with Sunni Arab insurgents, but they did not take him up on the offer. This year, however, they did. This implies that they are not as confident as they were a year ago that continuing the military insurgency and cooperation with al-Qaeda will achieve the desired result. Nevertheless, the insurgency has not ceased its military operations and many insurgents refuse to negotiate with either the coalition or the Iraqi government. Al-Qaeda still influences rejectionist Iraqi insurgents and religious extremists that are unwilling to participate in the political process.