- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

BAGHDAD — After months of painstaking dialogue, U.S. officials have persuaded most of the main insurgent groups to cease violence for today’s election and its immediate aftermath, U.S. officials said yesterday.

In return, the U.S. military agreed, despite severe internal disagreements, to halt “offensive operations” during the period, U.S. Embassy officials said on the condition of anonymity.

Polls opened today at 7 a.m., as expected, for the historic vote, but moments later a loud blast sounded in the capital, according to witnesses quoted by wire services. There were no immediate reports of any casualties or damage.

It was not clear what caused the explosion, but it sounded like a mortar round aimed toward the fortified green zone complex, where Iraq’s government is based and where senior politicians are due to vote.

Earlier, the results of the decisions to halt violence, taken without a public announcement, were much in evidence on the fields of battle. An unparalleled calm descended on Iraq, in contrast to the bloodshed before the elections in January.

“We’re shifting the battlefield. The arena — if things work out — is about to become parliament, not violence,” one official said.

The decision to negotiate, taken by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, met with resistance from several of his fellow officers. It was then decided to make no public statement, but simply to act on the new orders in secret.

U.S. forces are thought to be fighting dozens of different insurgent groups, making it difficult to measure the effort’s success.

Moreover, the time frame for the agreement, which also included several days prior to the vote, is not clear.

Nevertheless, the agreement has generally held up, despite some notable exceptions, such as Tuesday’s killing of a leading Sunni politician in Ramadi. On the same day, U.S. forces raided the city.

Yesterday, the U.S. military issued a statement in response to a query from The Washington Times. It mentioned “occasional meetings,” but said the meetings were “with Sunni leaders — not insurgency leaders with blood on their hands.”

The U.S. official said, “That only rules out a few individuals, and even then they can send ‘cleaner’ representatives to talks with us.”

One of the Army’s top links with Sunnis, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, also serves as the most senior spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq.

During a recent press conference, Gen. Lynch also hinted that talks were under way.

“We’ve made a conscious decision to focus on defeating the terrorists and foreign fighters and disrupting the capabilities of the rest of the insurgents. And the primary way to disrupt the capability of the rejectionists is through political engagement, and that’s what we’re working now,” Gen. Lynch said.

The new negotiating rules allowed for discussions with Ba’ath Party officers and officials from the former Saddam Hussein regime — even if they were full-fledged members of insurgent groups.

Clear hints that such a process was under way also came from a U.S. government Web site.

It said the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, “confirmed that the United States has begun talks with some supporters of the insurgency who have been opposed to the political process in the past.”

“The United States has been offering to deal with their legitimate concerns and urging them to participate in politics rather than encourage violence.”

U.S. Embassy officials warned that the arrangements could still be disrupted by the two groups who had not formed part of the dialogue — the hard-line Islamic terrorists led by Abu Musab Zarqawi and a section of the “resistance fighters” led by hard-line Ba’athist officers.

Some of the Ba’athists who met with U.S. officials had asked to be allowed to enter candidates in the election.

“We had to tell the Ba’athists it was too late for them to be officially included in the elections this time — but we will try to get them in for the next set of elections at the provincial level next year,” the U.S. official said.

To show good will, however, the embassy successfully urged the Iraqi government to allow 160 Ba’athists to run in today’s election.

The Iraqi government’s de-Ba’athificaton committee earlier had demanded their removal from the ballot.

The main grouping of unofficial pro-Ba’ath activists running in today’s election, Slate 667, has television advertisements using stirring martial music of the old Ba’ath Party — tunes that were widely used in the era before Saddam seized power.

It has been running on an “end the occupation” platform, but U.S. officials are thrilled that it is running at all.

“Far better they are in there in some form: all the easier to talk to them,” the U.S. official said.

An Internet posting from Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq organization this month declared the election a “crusader” plot, but, to the puzzlement of many observers, included no call for any attack on the election system or on voters.

c Distributed by World News & Features (worldnf.com)

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