Some Iraqi Insurgents May Be Ready to Negotiate

An Iraqi fireman walks away from a burning oil pipeline fire near the northern town of Baiji. i i

hide captionAn Iraqi fireman walks away from a burning oil pipeline fire near the northern town of Baiji on June 8, 2005. Iraq's oil exports through its northern pipeline to Turkey remain halted.

Amer Salman /Reuters
An Iraqi fireman walks away from a burning oil pipeline fire near the northern town of Baiji.

An Iraqi fireman walks away from a burning oil pipeline fire near the northern town of Baiji on June 8, 2005. Iraq's oil exports through its northern pipeline to Turkey remain halted.

Amer Salman /Reuters

There are prospects for talks between the Iraqi government and at least some of the leaders of Iraq's insurgency. Western diplomats confirm that some insurgent leaders have been reaching out to Iraqi and U.S. officials about ways to end the violence and enter the political dialogue.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today in Iraq, an American diplomat confirmed for the first time that some insurgent groups are negotiating, looking for a way to join the political process. They've been talking with an Iraqi politician. The American spoke on condition of anonymity, but it was a former Iraqi Cabinet minister who was first to announce that he's been talking to some insurgent groups for the past few months. Ayham Samarra'i served in the interim government of Ayad Allawi. Samarra'i revealed the existence of the negotiations for the first time yesterday. NPR's Deborah Amos is in the capital, Baghdad.

And, Deborah, did either the American or Mr. Samarra'i say which insurgent groups are involved in these talks?

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Robert, it was Dr. Samarra'i who was much more specific. He named two homegrown groups. One of them is called the Islamic Army of Iraq, and the other is called the Army of the Mujahideen, which is `the holy warriors' in English. These two groups have carried out their fair share of the violence. They have claimed responsibility for assassinations and kidnappings. From what's known about them, they are Sunni Muslims, and so is Dr. Samarra'i. He said when he talked to them--and it's been over about five months--they made no conditions, they wanted a limited truce with the current Shiite-dominated government and they want to see where these negotiations would go. But there's no way to confirm the specifics of his claims. He's briefed apparently both the Baghdad government and Washington.

SIEGEL: Now there are also reports that American officials have met with Sunni leaders who are at least close to the insurgents.

AMOS: That's true. Today, in a briefing with a senior American official, he said that these kind of meetings have been taking place over time. He wasn't very specific on when they started; he said it just has evolved. Now there's been a number of Sunni political groups that have emerged recently, for political reasons, to bring Sunnis and Shiites together over, for example, writing the constitution. And this official said that he had the sense that these Sunni Arabs who'd come to see him have close ties and connections with the insurgency.

SIEGEL: Well, do the Americans know, in fact, that they're not talking to the actual leaders of the insurgency?

AMOS: They really have no way to know that, but this senior diplomat said he didn't think that there had been any direct talks with what he called `people who are operational,' and that means the Iraqis who are doing the shooting.

SIEGEL: Deborah, give us some context here. What's going on now in Iraq that might account for these groups wanting to talk about being part of the political process now?

AMOS: Robert, one possibility is that these rebels simply want to hedge their bets. That's part of the culture here. Senior military commanders and now a senior diplomat say that it may be some of them are under pressure from the Iraqi military. The military here is growing in its ability to target insurgent cells across the country. At the same time, Sunnis say it was a mistake to stay away from the polls in January. They want a vote in the next election. They want to take the country back, they say, from what they see as the dominant Shia Muslim government. So it simply may be that some of these Iraqi groups have a political agenda, the militant groups, and they've decided there's another way to get there besides killing Iraqis.

SIEGEL: But would groups that have actually been killing Iraqis be welcome in the political process, or would they instead be held accountable for what they've done over the past few months?

AMOS: It's a complicated answer because when you talk to American officials, they say, `We know we have to politically deal with the insurgency.' Now if a figure emerges and it was clear that that figure was involved with killing Americans, the American government would have to make its own decisions on how to deal with that particular individual. Sunni Arabs want to bring them in;. Shia Muslims are going to have more trouble with this. Today, the head of the constitutional committee said that these insurgents have done nothing to help this country. I think it will be a hard sell on that part of the political fence.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Deborah.

AMOS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Deborah Amos, speaking to us from Baghdad.

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