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CIA 'seeks truce with Iraqi Baathists'

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BAGHDAD, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- The Central Intelligence Agency is reported to have recently conducted secret contacts in Yemen with Iraqi Baathist leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam Hussein's former vice president, in a bid to negotiate a political accord between Sunni insurgents and the Shiite-led Baghdad government.

The Paris-based Intelligence Online Web site said other meetings were held with Baathist leaders in Damascus, the Syrian capital where Douri and his associates reportedly live.

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The objective is to reconcile the minority Sunnis, who were the backbone of Saddam's tyrannical regime, and the majority Shiites, who were brutally suppressed by that regime, before crucial parliamentary elections scheduled for March 7.

There was no official confirmation of the Intelligence Online report by Washington or Baghdad. But it coincided with reports that U.S. counter-terrorism agents were working with former Saddam-era Iraqi intelligence officers in Yemen to counter the growing al-Qaida threat there.

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The regime of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was close to Saddam and has long employed Iraqi army officers to lead its 67,000-strong armed forces.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, hundreds of former military and intelligence officers who served Saddam have flooded into Sanaa.

The Americans, with whom Saddam was allied until 1990, reportedly want to create a special anti-jihadist unit. They no longer trust Saleh's Political Security Organization, which they say has been heavily penetrated by al-Qaida.

During the 1990-91 Gulf crisis triggered by Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, Saleh was one of the few Arab leaders to support Iraq.

Yemen at that time was a member of the U.N. Security Council and cast the only vote against a resolution permitting the use of force to drive Saddam out of Kuwait.

"That will be the most expensive 'no' vote you'll ever cast," a U.S. diplomat told the Yemeni ambassador.

Washington cut off its $70 million aid package to Yemen. Now President Barack Obama is doubling U.S. military aid to Sanaa to $150 million.

The CIA effort got under way early in the summer through the good offices of the head of Jordan's General Intelligence Department, Mohammed al-Raqqad, Intelligence Online said.

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According to Intelligence Online, the CIA wants to reconcile Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites before the U.S. military withdrawal is completed by the end of next year so that the Americans can leave a stable, united state behind them.

The prospects of a deal appear to be slender.

"Aware of their capacity to create mayhem in the run-up to the legislative elections, the Baath Party stalwarts are laying down draconian conditions for any halt to violence," the French Web site reported.

It listed their terms as "readmission of their militants to the civil service and the army and revocation of legislation punishing any political affiliation with the former regime."

Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is currently conducting a major crackdown against the Baathists, who he blames for three waves of suicide bombings in central Baghdad in August, October and December that killed some 400 people.

At the same time, Maliki's political credibility took a drubbing that could seriously affect his prospects of re-election in the March polls.

If the CIA's strategy fails, Intelligence Online warned, "The American military could well leave behind a country in the midst of a civil war."

Maliki's security adviser, Safa Hussein, warned in December that al-Qaida in Iraq has now fallen under the influence of the Baathists, led by Douri and his main rival, Gen. Mohammed Yunis al-Ahmad.

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On Friday the government banned 15 parties from contesting the March poll because they had been linked to the Baath Party or promoted its ideals.

But the outlawed Baath remains a palpable presence. In November a mysterious television channel praising Saddam began broadcasting -- nobody knows from where -- on the anniversary of his execution in 2006.

The so-called Saddam Channel, reportedly run by Douri's people, disappeared after three days of showing footage of Saddam in his heyday and playing patriotic songs urging viewers to "liberate our country."

Douri, the last high-ranking fugitive from Saddam's rule still at large with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, regularly exhorts Iraqis to topple the Baghdad government and restore the Baath to power.

Douri, 65, last surfaced on an audiotape broadcast by al-Jazeera on April 9, the anniversary of the founding of the Baath, which ruled from 1968 until Saddam was toppled by the Americans in 2003.

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