Iraqi Government's Peace Talks With Falluja Break Off

By DEXTER FILKINS

New York Times

October 18, 2004

NEAR FALLUJA, Iraq, Oct. 18 - The chief negotiator for the city of Falluja said Monday that he had called off peace talks with the Iraqi government on the orders of guerrillas who control the city, in the latest development that seemed to signal the likelihood of an all-out offensive by the Americans and the Iraqi government to retake the city.

The negotiator, Khalid al-Jumali, said only hours after being released from American custody that the "council of holy warriors" had sent him a message telling him to end any negotiations with the Iraqi government. Mr. Jumali suggested that he had little choice but to go along and said talks might start again, but only with the insurgents' consent.

"The continuous bombing in Falluja is what led the mujahedeen council to tell me to suspend the negotiations," Mr. Jumali said.

His statement seemed to answer a crucial question that had hung over the long-running talks to reach a peaceful settlement in Falluja: whether Mr. Jumali and tribal leaders like him could force the insurgents to disarm if that were called for in a peace agreement.

In previous interviews, Mr. Jumali suggested that the tribal leaders, with deep roots in the city, maintained enough leverage over the guerrillas. On Monday, he suggested that his leverage was minimal.

The American military confirmed Monday for the first time that they had detained and released Mr. Jumali, but it is unclear why they did so and what they did with Mr. Jumali when they had him. "He was detained for a short time," said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a military spokesman in Baghdad. The colonel gave no further details.

Back at home on Monday, Mr. Jumali said he had been picked up by American forces on Friday in the nearby town of Habbaniya and flown by helicopter to a military base, where he had been interrogated about conditions in Falluja. He said the Americans had given him a toothbrush and a bar of soap during his detention. "They treated me well," he said.

His detention, which the Americans initially denied, seemed unusual, if only because some of the Americans and Iraqis involved in the negotiations said they regarded Mr. Jumali as well intentioned. It seemed clear enough on Monday that he was very much a man caught between two powerful forces that he could not control: the American military and the insurgents.

"I don't know why I was arrested, and the investigator told me he didn't know either," Mr. Jumali said.

He was released after the intervention of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, said Sabah Qadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

Falluja was mostly quiet on Monday after several days of bombing and fighting between insurgents and American marines, who have moved in closer to the city to draw out the guerrillas.

People continued to stream out of the city, fearing the all-out invasion that Iraqi leaders have been threatening if the insurgents do not agree to hand over their heavy weapons and turn over foreigners who have been fighting on their side. Residents described the city, which ordinarily has a population of 250,000, as mostly deserted, with the doors of the shops shuddered and many of the homes boarded up.

"Most of the people, 90 percent, have left the city," said Mustafa Shawket, the owner of an aluminum factory in Falluja who was leaving the city for Baghdad. "We can't stay in Falluja anymore. It's the bombing. The Americans say they are attacking houses with Mr. Zarqawi's people in them, but the bombs destroy everything around the houses too."

The Americans have been conducting nearly nightly airstrikes inside the city for almost two months, which they say are aimed at the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who is believed to be responsible for hundreds of deaths in Iraq. At least some of the strikes appear to have killed civilians, but it is impossible to verify the exact number.

Mr. Shawket spoke while sitting in his car at a temporary American checkpoint the marines erected on the main highway just outside the city. In recent days the marines have stepped up their patrolling around the city and moved in closer, in hopes of disrupting the guerrillas and drawing them into the open.

To that end, small teams of marines have been moving along the east-west highway that connects Falluja to Baghdad, setting up checkpoints, searching cars and then moving on after 15 or 20 minutes. The aim is to surprise any insurgents who might be traveling with guns, but it is also a safety precaution, the marines say.

"We move so they don't hit us with mortars," said Sgt. Eugenio Mehjia, a 25-year-old marine who was at one of the posts.

Still, for all of the aggressiveness shown by the marines, the effectiveness of the new tactic seemed uncertain. Long lines of cars, full of unhappy Iraqis, queued up before the checkpoints. As the marines checked passing cars, two large explosions erupted off the scrub nearby. Whether they were the result of insurgents' mortars or American jets was unknown.

As the afternoon sun ebbed toward the horizon, the one clear thing seemed to be the difficulty of the marines' mission. They have found neither weapons nor insurgents but have managed to antagonize a number of Iraqis, whose opinions of the American military now could hardly be more hostile.

"The end of America will be in Falluja," said Ghazi Muhammad Ibrahim, whose car lay idle on the roadside, shot up, he said, by the marines at the checkpoint. "That small city."

An Iraqi employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Falluja for this article.