WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- Talks involving U.S. and Iraqi officials on one side and a range of homegrown insurgent groups on the other are now regular background music to the Iraq situation, and account, in part, for the fact that violence has not disrupted Thursday's election. Washington and Iraqi sources were insistent the meetings did not extend to representatives or followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the al-Qaida terrorist organization, but beyond that lines of communication had been opened to Sunni nationalist insurgents, diehard Baathists, and to so-called "rejectionists," who oppose any government that includes former U.S.-supported Iraqi exiles.
At the center of the talks ("not negotiations, because that implies a dialogue of equals," stressed one Washington source who asked not to be identified because his comments were unofficial) on the U.S. side is the Bush administration's ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad. His initial contacts were with nationalist groups, but the source says the Americans are now talking either directly or indirectly to other armed groups affiliated to Iraq's Sunni Arab community. "We want to deal with their legitimate concerns," Khalilzad told Time magazine last week. "We will intensify the engagement, interaction and discussion with them."
On the Iraqi side, aides to President Jalal Talabani confirmed this week that he has been contacted by a number of people claiming to be leaders of the insurgency, and offering to negotiate.
The insurgency was a byproduct of a U.S. decision following the fall of Baghdad 21/2 years ago to disband Saddam Hussein's armed forces and police as part of a sweeping purge of members of the Iraqi dictator's ruling Baath party. This left an army of resentful soldiers unemployed, many of whom went underground to harass U.S. occupation forces. Zarqawi, a Jordanian, and other foreign Islamist "jihadists" were also drawn to the mayhem. But Khalilzad admitted last week what he called the "excesses" in the de-Baathification process needed to be reversed, and -- except for senior regime members who had committed crimes -- "the time has come to integrate the rest into the political process."
There have been contacts, on and off, since the summer. In June, the top U.S. commander in the Gulf, Gen. John Abizaid, confirmed American officers "have been talking with a broad range of people from the Sunni Arab community, some of them obviously have some links with the insurgency. The Sunnis need to be part of the political future."
Behind U.S. efforts to rehabilitate the insurgents and draw them into the political process lies the tacit realization that antagonizing them in the first place had been a serious miscalculation. Conversely, making a significant dent in the insurgency is now seen in Washington as a key condition for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and declaring closure to a war marked by major administration errors of strategy and judgment.
Well-informed Washington sources believe the time is right for persuading Iraqi insurgents to engage in dialogue, firstly, because concern is growing among insurgent groups about the increasing influence in Iraq of Shiite Iran, Iraq's traditional enemy, which enjoys close ties with its co-religionists in Iraq: Some groups argue they should focus their attention on Iran rather than on the United States.
Secondly, Zarqawi's once-powerful position because al-Qaida was better organized and had more money is waning as Iraqi insurgents reject the groups' wholesale indiscriminate attacks on civilians and the Sunni community becomes more politically active. "There is a difference between terrorists and the national Iraqi resistance," declared Talal Gaaod, an Iraqi businessman and tribal leader based in Jordan who has liaised between insurgent groups and Iraqi officials. "Zarqawi's group does nothing but suicide attacks and killing Iraqis. That's not resistance."
Sunni insurgents are also considered more approachable for another reason, which is both encouraging and ominous: They are now less fragmented and have developed leadership structures. For example, word went out to insurgent fighters to vote in Thursday's elections. Abu Marwan, a senior commander of the Baathist guerrilla group called the Army of Mohammed, was recently quoted as saying he had even voted in the (October) referendum on the Iraqi constitution that the Sunnis are supposed to have boycotted -- "and I'm still fighting, and everybody in my organization did the same. This is two-track war, bullets and ballot."
The missing link in the contacts, however, is the emergence of a political group affiliated to the insurgents, the way Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland had ties to the Irish Republican Army. That, analysts say, would make for more substantive talks.