Tuesday, December 20, 2005


American diplomats called it “mission impossible” — to bend the rules on contact with powerful anti-American Sunni forces in Iraq and negotiate a cease-fire — all before last week’s elections.

Their orders came from U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. The effort took months and culminated in a day of voting in which Sunni Arabs came out in droves after having boycotted the first parliamentary election a year ago.

The cease-fire period started Dec. 13 and ended Sunday, spanning Thursday’s elections. The period passed with no major attacks on Iraqi civilians.

The effort by U.S. diplomats and military officials also redefined U.S. policy in Iraq — a potentially seismic shift that President Bush spelled out this month in four major policy speeches that referred to three types of insurgents: “rejectionists,” “Saddamists” and terrorists.

Washington seeks truce

U.S. officials continue to talk with the “rejectionists,” a category that appears to include the bulk of those who have taken up arms to battle American and Iraqi forces.

Now that the elections have passed, the United States is continuing the effort, seeking a long-term cease-fire that would drive a wedge between Iraqi Sunnis and terrorist forces, such as those led by Abu Musab Zarqawi and his al Qaeda in Iraq. The terrorist organization seeks to impose a primitive, Taliban-like regime on Iraq and use Iraq as a base from which to topple governments throughout the Middle East and larger Muslim world.

A senior official at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad gave the following account to The Washington Times and World News & Features (www.worldnf.com), a specialized news agency focusing on conflict zones:

“At several stages we told [Mr. Khalilzad] it could not work, but he insisted and pressed and pushed,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.

The election-day results appear to have exceeded even the insistent and “impossibly optimistic” ambassador’s own expectations. “They bode well for a future deal, but several pitfalls remain.”

The effort began this autumn when the American team drew up a list of “literally hundreds” of people they would like to meet. “We let the word out. … And we began dealing with the real bad guys, or the interlocutors.”

The initial talks were local encounters mediated by tribal sheiks in the vast Anbar province, with its expanses of desert and slivers of verdant land alongside the Euphrates River.

Small-scale but vital deals were made.

Horse-trading tried

“They went something like this,” the official said. “We’ll stop raiding houses searching for suspects, or we’ll remove our checkpoints from certain places, provided you guarantee there will be no shootings or bombings on a certain road or geographic area.”

Later, negotiators worked on a wider form of cease-fire, culminating on Oct. 28 in a “big tent” meeting at an undisclosed location, bringing together American and British diplomats and U.S. Army personnel with tribal, political, religious and insurgent figures.

The talks involved considerable risk for those on the American side, who shed the conspicuous “business attire” required at the U.S. Embassy and instead wore casual clothing under their flak jackets.

Apache and Chinook helicopters ferried them from the protected green zone in central Baghdad deep into enemy territory, including the cities of Ramadi, Fallujah and Al Qaim and Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

Talking to insurgents

The new rules were: “We will not talk to terrorists with blood on their hands.” It is a formula that allowed talks with all except those whom U.S. intelligence fingered as killers or who gave orders to kill.

“It was a very, very liberal interpretation,” the U.S. official said. By a process of definitions, years of refusal to talk to insurgents were reversed.

“By negotiating a reduction of violence, we wanted to drive a wedge between the foreign fighters and all the rest,” a U.S. official said.

When the outlines of an election cease-fire were completed, U.S. and British diplomats, along with a senior U.S. military official, drew up an action plan that was forwarded internally to the White House and to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Tribal leaders in Anbar province showed their good will by turning in one of Zarqawi’s top lieutenants.

The U.S.-led coalition responded with a series of prisoner releases beginning in early October. About 2,500 were freed, including several senior officials from Saddam’s regime this week.

Most of these prisoners were not true killers, but had aided insurgents by making or delivering weaponry, or by providing transportation.

Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, ordered an end of “aggressive operations” effective Dec. 13.

Raids endanger truce

The process nearly unraveled late in the negotiations when a U.S. Army unit, apparently unaware of a looming deal, launched raids on homes of suspected insurgents inside Fallujah.

“We had to scramble to explain it was just a mess-up,” the official said. “But from their perspective, where everything is seen as a conspiracy, we had done it on purpose.

“Eventually, they accepted our promise it would not happen again.”

The insurgents were angered again when a communication failure led to further arrests, this time involving people who had been talking with the American and British negotiators. Most, but not all, soon were set free.

“We’ve put our interlocutors on a no-raid list,” said a U.S. official, “but things still go wrong sometimes.”

In one case, an American military unit raided a house in Baghdad, seized numerous guns and made arrests. It turned out the house belonged to Mahmoud Meshed Ani, one of the main Iraqis in the negotiations.

“He’s still demanding all the weapons back,” the U.S. source said. “But there is no way our military people can hand over Kalashnikovs to anyone, let alone to insurgents.”

The main demands of the insurgents and their supporters were:

• Release our prisoners.

• Move American troops out of the cities. “We told them that one will take some time,” a U.S. official said.

• Protect insurgents from revenge, particularly armed Ba’athists, who feared Sunnis might want to kill them in retaliation for past atrocities.

The discovery of detention centers where torture was routine, and the prevalence of Shi’ite extremists’ kidnap and assassination squads, also threatened the agreement.

U.S. raids welcomed

Sunni hard-liners saw military raids on two insurgent detention centers in Baghdad on Nov. 15 and in early December as U.S. determination not to permit Shi’ite excesses.

“The Sunnis were uneasy about the decision to deploy an Interior Ministry unit, the Wolf Brigade, inside Fallujah for the elections, but they did not consider this a make-or-break issue,” an American official said.

“The hard-line Sunnis believe we … wanted to promote the Iranian takeover of Iraq — ludicrous, but that’s what they believed,” a U.S. official said. The raids on the two detention facilities helped assuage those concerns.

Negotiators reached a major turning point when the Sunnis demanded an American commitment to withdraw from the cities and stay inside their military bases.

“We told them: We can go further than that. Our aim is to get out of Iraq, period, and we don’t want any military bases here at all.”

But American negotiators insisted on security in Iraq before that sort of withdrawal.

“Once they understood that, the rest fell into place,” the American official said.

The U.S. negotiators were pleasantly surprised when some Ba’athist representatives said they would take part in the elections.

“We had to tell them they had missed the boat this time around,” the U.S. source said. “But we said we’d work to make it possible for the provincial elections next year.”

After Mr. Bush used key phrases from the secret document in his speeches, one of the American negotiators received a congratulatory phone call from Hikmat Hadithi, a former Ba’athist finance minister who had remained close to Saddam, despite officially leaving the party in 1991.

Bush’s coded speech

“He phoned me and was thrilled to death at the president’s speech. They had wanted some public acknowledgment, and they got it.”

One of the Sunni political parties close to the insurgency issued a significant but overlooked public statement two days before the elections.

The statement laid out terms of the cease-fire and “thanked” insurgents for ensuring the polling stations would be protected and voters safeguarded. The statement had opened with a demand for U.S. occupation forces to evacuate the cities.

Some Ba’athist figures ran as candidates in the election. One party even used Ba’athist martial music in television ads.

The Shi’ite-dominated de-Ba’athification committee tried to have 200 candidates banned. Having been a senior Ba’athist officer or a member of the party’s top four ranks was supposed to be an automatic bar from candidacy and from government jobs, but the U.S. negotiators managed to prevent such bans from being imposed.

Negotiations on track

The relatively peaceful elections have put negotiations on a firm path. Sunni hard-liners demand more prisoner releases and for Shi’ite and Kurdish militias to be disbanded and their influence within Iraqi security services curbed.

In return, Sunni tribal leaders would ensure there are no more safe havens for foreign terrorists and would discourage lraqis from planting bombs or firing weapons.

The release of “high-value” detainees also has been an important signal. The transfer of 24 of these top detainees was planned for a month ago, the source said. “But Prime Minister [Ibrahim al-]Jaafari was so vehemently opposed, we feared if we released them they would be killed, and we’d be in a worse position.”

Several thousand lower-level prisoners are to be released in the next few months. The Bush administration is pressing for a softening of anti-Ba’ath legislation through an announced review by the Iraqi Presidency Council.

Negotiators on both sides think the prospects a U.S.-Iraqi agreement and an exit strategy for the Americans and their allies are bright.

“We can see light at the end of the tunnel,” the U.S. official said, “and this time it’s not coming from an onrushing train.”

• This article is the result of a joint investigation by The Washington Times and World News & Features.

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