- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 25, 2009

BAGHDAD | Iraq said Friday it is investigating reports that U.S. delegates and Sunni insurgents held reconciliation talks in Turkey this year, claiming the meetings violated Iraqi sovereignty and showed tolerance for terrorists.

The State Department acknowledged that unspecified meetings took place, but said Iraq knew about them at the time.

The matter raises sensitive questions about Iraq’s newfound authority as the United States hands over responsibility to Iraqi forces, which have taken charge of security in cities since June 30. The revelations came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ended a visit to the United States after meeting with President Obama on Wednesday.

Although the meetings in Turkey are said to have occurred months ago, news reports about an agreement supposedly signed by the American and insurgent sides have angered Iraqis who are struggling to assert their independence after years of conflict.

A man identified as the secretary-general of the Political Council for the Iraqi Resistance told Al Jazeera TV last week that his group held talks with U.S. officials in March and in May. He said the two sides signed a “protocol to organize the negotiation process and a document that included U.S. recognition of the Iraqi resistance.”

The man, Ali al-Jubouri, said the group’s other demands included a formal U.S. apology for the 2003 invasion and the release of all Iraqi prisoners, but that the talks had since broken down.

U.S. diplomatic and military officials have negotiated with Sunni insurgents in the past. They scored a notable success by persuading Sunni tribal leaders, whose followers included anti-American fighters, to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq in what was considered a key factor in reducing violence in 2007.

Despite the drop in insurgent attacks and sectarian bloodshed, political reconciliation among Iraq’s factions remains difficult. Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government, whose supporters suffered under the Sunni-dominated rule of Saddam Hussein, is deeply skeptical of the possibility of an accord with Sunni insurgents, some of whom might have links to Saddam’s old Ba’ath party.

“Nobody can make decisions on behalf of Iraq, which has a legitimate government,” said Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the security and defense committee in the Iraqi parliament. “We want to know if these armed groups are included in the national reconciliation project and whether their hands have been stained in Iraqi blood.”

In an interview with the U.S.-funded Al Hurra network, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he received confirmation of a meeting involving U.S., insurgent and Turkish representatives in Istanbul in March.

Mr. Zebari said it was “shocking” and “amazing” that U.S. and Turkish officials met “the supporters of the former regime, groups that adopt violence and terrorism as a way to change the situation, and the networks that believe in killing, bombing and targeting innocents.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Friday that U.S. officials have met with a wide range of Iraqi contacts to promote reconciliation and foster national unity.

“The meetings in question occurred months ago and with the knowledge of officials within the Iraqi government,” Mr. Wood said. “Having spent the past six years helping Iraq build a representative and effective democratic government, the last thing we would do is take any action intended to undercut it.”

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