- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

BAGHDAD — President Jalal Talabani met with representatives of seven armed groups and is optimistic that they may agree to lay down their weapons, his office said yesterday. It was the first time a senior Iraqi official has acknowledged talks with insurgents.

However, Mr. Talabani did not identify the groups or specify when and where the meeting took place. It was not clear whether the seven groups represented a substantial portion of the insurgency.

“I believe that a deal can be reached with the seven armed groups that visited me,” Mr. Talabani was quoted as saying. His office said Mr. Talabani made the remarks Saturday during a meeting with fellow Kurds in their self-ruled region of northern Iraq.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been eager to establish a dialogue with insurgents other than Saddam Hussein loyalists or Islamic extremists such as al Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. officials think a third faction — mostly nationalistic Sunni Arabs — might be willing to make a deal if they feel Iraq’s new national unity government serves their interests.

According to his office, Mr. Talabani said al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, had declared a “genocide against the Iraqi people.”

“But there are groups other than the Saddamists and Zarqawists who joined armed operations to fight the occupation, and we are trying to establish a dialogue with them so they will join the political process,” he said.

Mr. Talabani’s security adviser, Lt. Gen. Wafiq al-Samaraei, told Al Arabiya television that the dialogue was aimed at driving a wedge between religious zealots and other insurgents.

American officials hope the nation’s new political leadership, made up of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds, will manage to calm sectarian tensions and lure disaffected Sunni Arabs from the insurgency.

Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki hopes to name his Cabinet by May 10, Iraqi officials said. Negotiations are under way to fill key posts, including the ministers of defense, interior and oil.

In an interview Saturday with National Public Radio, Mr. Khalilzad expressed doubt that Mr. al-Maliki would finish by his self-imposed deadline. He has until late May to complete the task.

“It’s good to have a deadline, but I think perhaps he’s being optimistic,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “It will be tough for him” because of competing demands of the religious- and ethnical-based parties.

Another key step toward ending the insurgency is to recruit more Sunni Arabs into the Shi’ite-dominated ranks of the security services to help win the trust of the Sunni community.

The first all-Sunni class finished its basic training yesterday in Habbaniyah, 50 miles west of Baghdad.

After the graduation ceremony, some of the 978 new soldiers began shouting and arguing when they learned they would have to serve in Ramadi and other dangerous parts of Sunni-dominated Anbar province instead of their hometown of Fallujah. Some soldiers also complained that they had not been paid.



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