Exclusive: Direct Talks: U.S. Officials and Iraqi Insurgents

American officials in Iraq are in face-to-face talks with high-level Iraqi Sunni insurgents, NEWSWEEK has learned. Americans are sitting down with "senior members of the leadership" of the Iraqi insurgency, according to Americans and Iraqis with knowledge of the talks (who did not want to be identified when discussing a sensitive and ongoing matter). The talks are taking place at U.S. military bases in Anbar province, as well as in Jordan and Syria. "Now we have won over the Sunni political leadership," says U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. "The next step is to win over the insurgents." The groups include Baathist cells and religious Islamic factions, as well as former Special Republican Guards and intelligence agents, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the talks. Iraq's insurgent groups are reaching back. "We want things from the U.S. side, stopping misconduct by U.S. forces, preventing Iranian intervention," said one prominent insurgent leader from a group called the Army of the Mujahedin, who refused to be named because of the delicacy of the discussions. "We can't achieve that without actual meetings."

U.S. intelligence officials have had back-door channels to insurgent groups for many months. The Dec. 15 elections brought many Sunnis to the polls and widened the split between Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi's foreign jihadists and indigenous Sunni insurgents. This marks the first time either Americans or insurgents have admitted that "senior leaders" have met at the negotiating table for planning purposes. "Those who are coming to work with [the U.S.] or come to an understanding with [the U.S.], even if they worked with Al Qaeda in a tactical sense in the past--and I don't know that--they are willing to fight Al Qaeda now," says a Western diplomat in Baghdad who has close knowledge of the discussions. An assortment of some of Iraq's most prominent insurgent groups also recently formed a "council" whose purpose, in addition to publishing religious edicts and coordinating military actions, is to serve as a point of contact for the United States in the future. "The reason they want to unite is to have a public contact with the U.S. if they disagree," says the senior insurgent figure. "If negotiations between armed groups and Americans are not done, then no solutions will be found," says Issa al-Addai al-Mehamdi, a sheik from the prominent Duleimi tribe in Fallujah. "All I can say is that we support the idea of Americans talking with resistance groups."

They have much to discuss. For one, Americans and Iraqi insurgent groups share a common fear of undue Iranian influence in Iraq. "There is more --concern about the domination by Iran of Iraq," says a senior Western diplomat, "and that combination of us being open to them and the dynamics of struggle for domination of violence has come together to get them to want to reach an understanding with us." Contacts between U.S. officials and insurgents have been criticized by Iraq's ruling Shiite leaders, many of whom have longstanding ties to Iran and are deeply resented by Sunnis. "We haven't given the green light to [talks] between the U.S. and insurgents," says Vice President Adel Abdel Mehdi, of the Shiite party, called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Negotiations are risky for everyone--not least because tensions between Al Qaeda and Iraq's so-called patriotic resistance is higher than ever. Two weeks ago, assassins killed Sheik Nassir Qarim al-Fahdawi, a prominent Anbar sheik described by other Sunnis as a chief negotiator for the insurgency. "He was killed for talking to the Americans," says Zedan al-Awad, another leading Anbar sheik. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, continues to gain territory in the Sunni heartland, according to al-Awad: "Let me tell you: Zarqawi is in total control of Anbar. The Americans control nothing." Many, on both sides, are hoping that talks could change that. Scott Johnson, Rod Nordlandand and Ranya Kadri

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