In the central Sunni city of Al-Fallujah -- where a year-long smoldering resistance flared into active warfare last week -- the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has initiated a first round of discussions with insurgents aimed at ending the fighting, at least temporarily.
Those talks -- though only preliminary -- appear to mark a shift in U.S. policy. Until a few days ago, there was never any hint of discussions. Indeed, it was not clear who the U.S. would talk with, as the insurgents were labeled variously as Fedayeen loyalists, Ba'athists, or "international terrorists."
"On the request of the [U.S.-appointed Iraqi] Governing Council, we initiated a freeze to offensive operations. We suspended offensive operations initially to allow some discussions to occur and for some humanitarian assistance provided by the Iraqi government to get into the city of Al-Fallujah to help the noncombatants," Sanchez said.
He said that if the talks are successful, the U.S. is open to what he called "significant negotiations" -- presumably, negotiations to permanently end the fighting in Al-Fallujah.
"These are just initial discussions. We are not negotiating at this point until we achieve some confidence-building and a period of stability. Then we would consider going into significant negotiations to end this battle," Sanchez said.
The situation is similar in the south, where the U.S. faces a continuing armed insurrection from some members of Iraq's majority Shi'a population.
Last week, militiamen loyal to radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seized several Shi'a towns in the south and demanded a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The U.S. military later retook many of the towns, but it was an embarrassing show of defiance from a Shi'a community that the U.S. was counting on for support.
Publicly, the U.S. says its official policy is to "kill or capture" al-Sadr and members of his militia -- whom U.S. officials refer to as "thugs." Yet, a report today in "The New York Times" says the U.S. itself may be the driving force behind current talks with al-Sadr to end the fighting.
The newspaper -- quoting unnamed U.S. sources -- says talks yesterday in Al-Najaf between al-Sadr and prominent members of Iraq's Shi'a community were the result of days of secret, behind-the-scenes contacts by officials. The talks -- while not involving the U.S. directly -- included the son of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's leading Shi'a cleric.
The commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf region, General John Abizaid, yesterday did not confirm any direct U.S. role in discussions with al-Sadr, but seemed to hint at some U.S. support for the talks by calling them "very, very important."
"[Al-Sadr's actions were] not by any stretch of the imagination a Shi'a uprising. And it's a combination of some military action on our part but, probably much more importantly, very, very important Shi'a political action that is isolating him," Abizaid said.
The discussions appear to be bearing fruit. Al-Sadr has reportedly ordered members of his militia to leave their positions at police stations and government buildings in Al-Najaf and other towns they were holding.
To be sure, it's unclear how much the U.S. has truly embraced this policy. U.S. troops in Baghdad today detained one of al-Sadr's top aides, Hazem al-Araji. And any end to the fighting in Al-Fallujah or in the south would not necessarily stop the general insurgency against the occupation, which has killed 415 coalition soldiers since major combat ended last May. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in the latest fighting.
Any significant shift in U.S. policy to emphasize negotiations over military action would likely be welcomed by the international community, as well as by many Iraqis. The U.S. increasingly has been criticized for what many feel is too heavy a hand in dealing with its opponents in Iraq -- and unnecessarily fueling further grievances.
Much of the success of any negotiations is likely to depend on how credible the negotiators partners are. Even now, for example, it's not entirely known who is on the other end of the current Governing Council-led discussions in Al-Fallujah.
Hussein Fuad is an Iraqi adviser to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority -- the ultimate power brokers in Iraq. He describes the representatives of the Al-Fallujah insurgents as a fragmented group.
"There are some groups that think that they are following the 'jihad,' and they think it is their duty to fight others. But there are others, of course, who want to be more representative in the future government, while there are some other groups who are fighting to make it difficult for everybody to have a new government. So it is not one group, actually. There are various groups and some of them are very small," Fuad said.