June 26, 2005
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld acknowledged Sunday that U.S. officials have met with insurgents in Iraq, after a British newspaper reported that two such meetings took place recently at a villa north of Baghdad.
Insurgent commanders "apparently came face to face" with four American officials during meetings on June 3 and June 13 at a villa near Balad, about 25 miles north of Baghdad, The Sunday Times reported.
When asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" about the report of the two meetings, Rumsfeld said, "Oh, I would doubt it. I think there have probably been many more than that."
But he insisted the talks did not involve negotiations with Iraq's most-wanted terrorist, Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but were rather facilitating efforts by the Shiite-led government to reach out to minority Sunni Arabs, who are believed to be the driving force behind the insurgency.
"We see the government of Iraq is sovereign. They're the ones that are reaching out to the people who are not supporting the government," Rumsfeld said on "Meet the Press."
"They're not going to try to bring in the people with blood on their hands, for sure, but they're certainly reaching out continuously, and we help to facilitate those from time to time."
The Sunday Times report, which quoted unidentified Iraqis whose groups were purportedly involved in the meetings, said the insurgents at the first meeting included the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, which claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Iraq and a Christmas attack that killed 22 people in the dining hall of a U.S. base at Mosul.
Two others were Mohammed's Army and the Islamic Army in Iraq, which in August reportedly killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, the newspaper said.
One American at the talks introduced himself as a Pentagon representative and declared himself ready to "find ways of stopping the bloodshed on both sides and to listen to demands and grievances," The Sunday Times said.
The official indicated that the results of the talks would be relayed to his superiors in Washington, the newspaper said.
Rumsfeld did not provide details about any meetings, saying the insurgency had many layers, ranging from disaffected Sunni members of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime to foreign-born terrorists.
"There's no one negotiating with Zarqawi or the people that are out chopping peoples' heads off," he said.
He also played down the significance of the report.
"I would not make a big deal out of it. Meetings go on frequently with people," Rumsfeld told "Fox News Sunday."
The U.S. officials tried to gather information about the structure, leadership and operations of the insurgent groups, which irritated some members, who had been told the talks would consider their main demand -- a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the newspaper said.
During the June 13 talks, the U.S. officials demanded that two other insurgent groups, the 1920 Revolution and the Majhadeen Shoura Council, cut ties with al-Zarqawi's group, al-Qaida in Iraq, according to the report.
A senior U.S. official said earlier this month that American authorities have negotiated with key Sunni leaders, who are in turn talking with insurgents and trying to persuade them to lay down their arms. The official, who did not give his name so as not to undercut the new government's authority, did not name the Sunni leaders engaged in dialogue.
Iraq's former electricity minister, Ayham al-Samarie, has told The Associated Press that two insurgent groups -- the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Army of Mujahedeen -- were willing to negotiate with the Iraqi government, possibly opening a new political front in the country.
Al-Samarie, a Sunni Muslim, said he had established contact with the groups, which account for a large part of the Sunni insurgents and were responsible for attacks against Iraqis and foreigners, including assassinations and kidnappings.
A senior Shiite legislator, Hummam Hammoudi, also told the AP recently that the Iraqi government had opened indirect channels of communication with some insurgent groups.
The contacts were "becoming more promising and they give us reason to continue," Hammoudi said, without providing details.
U.S. and Iraqi officials also are considering amnesty for their enemies as they look for ways to end the country's rampant insurgency and isolate extremists wanting to start a civil war.