The Bush administration has begun a concerted effort in Iraq to "peel away" certain Sunni insurgents from foreign terrorist cells, even referring to the targeted groups as "political resistance" that might be persuaded to join the permanent government.
The Pentagon strategy centers on frequent behind-the-scenes talks among U.S. military and embassy personnel, elected and appointed Iraq leaders, and tribal chiefs with influence over insurgents.
A senior defense official described the process as twofold -- demonstrating to Sunni Muslim fighters that no hope of military victory exists and encouraging overtures from pro-U.S. Iraqis to Sunnis to join the political process.
"We are trying to peel off the insurgency from the foreign fighters" led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi, the senior defense official said. "A counterinsurgency policy has to have a political process it can channel the insurgents into. ... This is the counterinsurgency campaign that is going on."
The strategy has evolved from initial plans of training Iraqis for the counterinsurgency mission, while building democratic institutions. The new approach is how the Pentagon thinks it can further reduce U.S. troops levels from the 130,000 envisioned by March to perhaps 100,000 by the end of this year.
The official said Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has communicated with tribal leaders who provide the names of insurgents who may quit fighting.
"Tribal guys will say this is an element who might propose to stop the fighting," the source said. "Khalilzad will then hook them up with elected Iraqi leaders."
Asked with whom the pro-U.S. Iraqis might be willing to deal, the official used the term "political resistance" from the ranks of loyalists to former dictator Saddam Hussein.
"People with blood on their hands are not welcome," the source said.
The Washington Times first reported on Dec. 21 that to secure a cease-fire for the Dec. 15 assembly elections, the U.S. Embassy and U.S. commanders met secretly with Iraqi leaders, including those involved in the insurgency.
A U.S. military officer, who spent more than a year in Baghdad's Green Zone, said he thinks some Sunni leaders will turn on Zarqawi and his fighters once they think their interests are represented in the new assembly. Sunnis won 55 seats, a much better showing than in the first parliamentary elections, last January.
There are some signs already that Zarqawi, a Jordanian, is less welcome in Iraq. The Marines, who control the restive Anbar Province, reported last month that local Sunnis turned in one of Zarqawi's top henchman in the town of Ramadi.
"There's a split developing," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a military analyst who recently visited Iraq. "The Sunnis have to realize we are their last best hope for having a say in Iraq."
Gen. McInerney quoted commanders as saying one of the most troubling trends is happening inside mosques, which are generally off-limits to U.S. troops. Some clerics are actively preaching rebellion and encouraging Iraqis to become suicide bombers.
Asked why the U.S. does not arrest the clerics, Gen. McInerney said, "It's a political thing."
Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Turner, who commands the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq near the city of Mosul, said fewer Sunnis are aligning themselves with foreign fighters.
"I think the Iraqi people fully realize that the goals of al Qaeda are not compatible with the Iraq of the future that they envision," Gen. Turner said last week.