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Iraqi government to meet rebels

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Iraq's new government plans to hold its first official meeting as early as tomorrow with members of the Sunni resistance in an effort to end the brutal violence that has left hundreds of civilians dead across the country.

Representatives of Sunni insurgent forces from the restive western al-Anbar province plan to sit down with members of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's government tomorrow or Saturday, an Iraqi official said on the condition of anonymity.

Experts are not eager to predict whether the meeting will turn the insurgency around, but they believe the talks are an important step toward ending the violence.

"It's pretty important primarily because they have never accepted to talk before," said Patricia Karam of the United States Institute of Peace. "It is the first time the insurgents have shown an indication that they are willing to negotiate."

The group is to include Sunnis from the insurgent hotbeds of Ramadi and Mosul, said the official who works with Iraq's ruling Shi'ite alliance. He did not think representatives of the Baghdad-based insurgency would be present.

"They are looking for positions, for a piece of the Iraqi cake," the official said of the upcoming talks. "They want to get positions in the government. [The government] will offer some, and it will be fine," he added.

The official said the meeting would be the first with the current government led by Mr. al-Jaafari, but there had been previous talks between insurgent leaders and members of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Cabinet.

The government intends to hold a press conference after this week's gathering, he added. He did not say where the meeting would take place.

The official said the talks were part of a broader two-pronged approach to stopping the bombings and killings that have crippled economic progress in Iraq.

Cities and roads across central and western Iraq, including the capital, have come under repeated insurgent attacks, terrifying the civilian population, stalling significant reconstruction and leaving hundreds of Iraqi security forces dead or maimed.

Wire agencies yesterday reported that rebels had ambushed the motorcade of a Kurdish parliamentarian, killing two of his bodyguards in Baghdad. And police said 22 soldiers from Shi'ite southern Iraq were kidnapped in the western desert.

Apart from the human toll, such attacks keep Iraq's main supply routes unstable, driving up security and delivery costs for the military and private contractors.

The Iraqi government and U.S. Embassy have focused so far on advancing the political process -- writing a new constitution before an Aug. 15 deadline and organizing new elections by the end of the year -- as well as physically taking territory from the insurgents.

"I think they are in progress, they are doing a good job" on both fronts, insisted the official.

Asked about the estimated 900 people killed since the new government was formed on April 28, he pointed to a political vacuum during the three months of negotiations on Cabinet posts.

"The Interior Ministry is passive," he said, but did not elaborate. The ministry is responsible for the development of Iraqi police forces, which often have shown themselves weak under fire.

The official said the current 40,000-strong force attempting to control Baghdad in Operation Lightning would have to remain in place and even expand as the government fights to regain the upper hand in the city.

He also called for a "serious" number of troops to be placed in the area of Ramadi and the border with Syria.

U.S. military analysts admit the current "search-and-cordon" tactics of cleaning out insurgents' hotbeds are only temporary fixes and could only be considered part of a larger anti-insurgent strategy.

"If you clear out Baghdad, you better come in with something else the people want and appreciate, whether putting in sewers or running electrical wire," said Paul Hughes, a retired colonel who served in Iraq and is currently with the United States Institute of Peace.

"I'm not confident that is happening. If we continually chase the insurgents only to have them come back, we are just shadow boxing," he said.

He agreed that the Ministry of Interior had "serious" problems in both personnel, organization and supplying effective support to police detachments.