The U.S. top commander in the Persian Gulf region, General John Abizaid, confirmed on U.S. television yesterday that contacts have taken place between the United States and representatives of some insurgent groups.
"American officers and certainly diplomatic people in Baghdad, and also Iraqi diplomatic leaders, have been talking with a broad range of people from the Sunni Arab community, some of whom obviously have some links to the insurgency," Abizaid said.
U.S. officials say they are not involved in negotiations with such extremists as Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
But analysts doubt the new tactics will work. David Hartwell, a Middle East expert with the London-based “Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment,” says negotiating with insurgents is a difficult task for an occupying power.
"The problem that the Americans have is legitimacy and credibility," Hartwell told RFE/RL. "I think if the Iraqi government [itself] was trying to carry out this sort of contacts, I think they would achieve [more] as they have their own contacts with the insurgent groups, they might stand more chances to success. I think the American problem is that they’re not just wanted and anything that is done by them is immediately counterproductive."
Experts at the Washington-based Brookings Institution estimate that the Iraqi insurgency currently numbers some 16,000 fighters. The figure cannot be independently confirmed and it is not known how many foreign fighters make up this total.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have undertaken several major military operations in recent weeks. Recently, Iraqi security forces encircled the capital Baghdad and U.S. troops led military operations near the Syrian border. There were reports of captured bunkers and huge caches of weapons found during these operations. Hundreds of insurgents were reportedly detained. But these military strikes did little to stop the rebellion.
Yahia Said, a researcher on Iraq at the London School of Economics, says it looks as if the U.S. troops and Iraqi forces are fighting different people than those they are negotiating with.
"The people who the Americans are fighting with and the Iraqi forces [are fighting with], and the people they are negotiating with are not necessarily the same people who are conducting the attacks," Said said. "In many cases people who have been subject to the latest [military] campaigns in the west of the country have been nationalist insurgents who were attacking U.S. forces rather that the terrorists from Zarqawi network."
Said says large sweeps tend to punish the civilian population or tend to confront the nationalistic part of the insurgency, not hard-core foreign terrorists. Hard-core fighters tend to escape such sweeps.
Said says a major problem is that discussions aimed at securing the Sunnis' participation in the political process are not going anywhere. "The people, the Sunnis that they are bringing into the [constitutional] process are not necessarily representatives of those constituencies that seem to be sustaining the insurgency," Said told RFE/RL.
Said says the current Shi'a-led government suffers from "a profound lack of legitimacy" and is seen by some as an American stooge. Many in Iraq are unhappy that the government did not ask the coalition forces to present a plan for the withdrawal of foreign troops as it has promised during the election campaign. Said says that last week 82 members of parliament signed a petition asking for this timetable.
"There is a strong mood in the country to move on to link the issue of fighting the terrorists and ending the foreign troops presence and this seems to be lost on the current government," Said said.
Hartwell, of “Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment,” adds that recent polls indicate the majority of U.S. voters also want an end to the war. However, the analyst says this looks unrealistic any time soon as the Iraqi security forces are not fit to prevent the country from descending into civil war or from falling apart.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops continue suffering losses almost on a daily basis. According to a count by AP, at least 1,735 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war have started in March 2003. It is not known how many insurgents have been killed.
For the latest news and analysis on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".