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    Middle East
     Dec 17, 2005
US embraces Iraqi insurgents
By Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON - While US President George W Bush continued to claim a strategy for "victory" in Iraq in recent speeches, his administration has quietly renounced the goal of defeating the non-al-Qaeda, Sunni-armed organizations there.

The administration is evidently preparing for serious negotiations with the Sunni insurgents, whom it has started referring to as "nationalists", emphasizing their opposition to al-Qaeda's objectives.

The new policy has thus far gone unnoticed in the media, partly because it has only been articulated by US Ambassador Zalmay

Khalilzad and the spokesman for the US command in Baghdad.

The White House clearly recognizes that the shift could cause serious political problems if and when it becomes widely understood. The Republican Party has just unveiled a new television ad attacking Democratic Party chair Howard Dean for suggesting that the war in Iraq cannot be won.

Renouncing victory over the Sunni insurgents therefore undercuts the president's political strategy of portraying his policy as one of "staying the course" and attacking the Democrats for "cutting and running".

Until recently, the administration treated the indigenous Sunni insurgents as the main enemy in Iraq, measuring progress primarily in terms of the numbers of insurgents killed and captured, and areas "cleared" of insurgent presence. Administration officials portrayed Sunni insurgents as allies of al-Qaeda and referred to them as "anti-Iraqi forces".

The hard line toward Sunni insurgents remained even after the administration began last summer to put much greater emphasis on the political track of attracting Sunnis into the new government. As recently as mid-November, briefings by the US command described operations in Western Iraq as being against "insurgents" - not against al-Qaeda or "terrorists".

But beginning in late November, both the US command and the US Embassy began signaling a dramatic change in Washington's attitude toward Sunni resistance organizations.

On November 24, the top US military spokesman, Major General Rick Lynch, made a point of emphasizing the command's understanding of the "capabilities, the vulnerabilities and the intentions of each group of the insurgency - the foreign fighters, the Iraqi rejectionists and the Saddamists".

He referred to the administration's "deliberate outreach" to the "rejectionists", which would allow them to "become part of the solution and not part of the problem".

That same week, Khalilzad announced in an ABC News,interview that he was prepared to open negotiations with the Sunni insurgents, but not with "Saddamists" or foreign terrorists. And in an interview with Time magazine, Khalilzad, referring specifically to Sunni insurgent groups, said: "We want to deal with their legitimate concerns."

Khalilzad then combined two major indications of a new willingness to accommodate the Sunni insurgents in the same sentence. "The fault line between al-Qaeda and the nationalists seems to have increased," he told Time.

Thus the image of the insurgents had been transformed from "anti-Iraqi forces" to "nationalists". The conflicting objectives of the Sunni resistance groups and the al-Qaeda-connected terrorist network were now played up rather than ignored, as in the past.

The clearest articulation of the change in policy to date, however, came in a US command media briefing by Lynch on December 8. He was asked to what extent the insurgency was "dominated or run by Ba'athists and rejectionists" and to what extent by "Islamic fundamentalists".

His reply avoided the question of which was more important and instead emphasized the difference between US policy toward the Sunni insurgents and its policy toward al-Qaeda terrorists. Lynch said US operations "are focused on [Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi and his network".

Then he made a crucial distinction. "We've made a conscious decision," he said, "to focus on defeating the terrorists and foreign fighters and disrupting the capabilities of the rest of the insurgents." So his audience wouldn't miss the distinction he was making, Lynch added that "the primary way to disrupt the capability of the rejectionists is through political engagement ..."

"Political engagement", as we now know from Khalilzad, means direct negotiations with the leaders of the insurgency. Lynch's answer had been carefully prepared ahead of time and reflected the new administration policy.

The new soft line toward the Sunni insurgents is a belated administration response to the conclusion of the US military commanders in Iraq last summer that the Sunni insurgents could not be "defeated" and that there must be a political settlement with them.

General George Casey, the commander of all multinational forces in Iraq, declared in an interview in late June that the conflict "will ultimately be settled by negotiation and inclusion in the political process. It will not be settled on the battlefield."

Significantly, Casey did not distinguish between US and Iraqi forces in calling for negotiations, thus differing with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In a news conference that same day, Rumsfeld said, "The coalition forces, the foreign forces, are not going to repress the insurgency," implying that Iraqi forces would be able to do so.

Casey also suggested that the "preliminary talks" that had occurred between US officials and insurgents could lead to actual negotiations. That idea was quickly squelched by the US Embassy, evidently on White House orders.

However, a policy debate over how to handle the Sunnis obviously continued within the administration, with the US military leadership in Iraq and Khalilzad pushing for real negotiations. It is now clear that the proponents of accommodation won the debate.

This does not mean that the White House has decided to give in on a timetable for troop withdrawal, which Bush just publicly rejected once again. As Seymour Hersh wrote in the December 5 New Yorker magazine, a think tank source close to Vice President Dick Cheney said the president still believed he could "tough this one out".

And despite its new line on the insurgency, US military operations are in fact still aimed largely at the Sunni insurgents rather than at al-Qaeda.

Nevertheless, the administration's abandonment of the goal of military defeat of the Sunni insurgents and willingness to negotiate with them betrays its "victory" rhetoric.

Such negotiations would certainly have considerable impact on the domestic politics of the war. Such negotiations would become the new focus of public views of Bush's handling of Iraq. That would in turn increase the pressure on the White House to get the insurgent leaders to come to an agreement. Meanwhile, the insurgents can be expected to insist that no agreement is possible without a timetable for US military withdrawal.

The insurgents can also increase the pressure on Bush by making public their offer, reportedly made by insurgent leaders to Arab League officials in Cairo last month, to deliver al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Zarqawi, to the Iraqi authorities as part of a peace agreement involving a US withdrawal timetable.

As more people in the US, including members of Congress, understand that the Sunni resistance is not the enemy, but is the necessary ally in the elimination of al-Qaeda's "terrorist haven" in Iraq, political support for continued US military presence is likely to shrink even further. Why, it may be asked, should US troops stay in Iraq to fight Sunni armed groups who are willing and able to turn in the real enemy in Iraq?

Thus the softening of the administration's policy toward the insurgents could set in motion a train of events that brings the US occupation to an end much more quickly than now seems possible.

Gareth Porter is an independent historian and foreign policy analyst. He is the author of The Third Option in Iraq: A Responsible Exit Strategy in the Fall issue of Middle East Policy.

(Inter Press Service)

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