Sunday, February 20, 2005

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Interesting developments in Iraq

In the wake of yesterday's suicide attacks in Iraq, Time's Michael Ware has an exclusive look at back-channel negotiations between U.S. officials and elements of the Iraqi insurgency. The highlights:

The secret meeting is taking place in the bowels of a facility in Baghdad, a cavernous, heavily guarded building in the U.S.-controlled green zone. The Iraqi negotiator, a middle-aged former member of Saddam Hussein's regime and the senior representative of the self-described nationalist insurgency, sits on one side of the table. He is here to talk to two members of the U.S. military. One of them, an officer, takes notes during the meeting. The other, dressed in civilian clothes, listens as the Iraqi outlines a list of demands the U.S. must satisfy before the insurgents stop fighting. The parties trade boilerplate complaints: the U.S. officer presses the Iraqi for names of other insurgent leaders; the Iraqi says the newly elected Shi'a-dominated government is being controlled by Iran. The discussion does not go beyond generalities, but both sides know what's behind the coded language.

The Iraqi's very presence conveys a message: Members of the insurgency are open to negotiating an end to their struggle with the U.S. "We are ready," he says before leaving, "to work with you."

In that guarded pledge may lie the first sign that after nearly two years of fighting, parts of the insurgency in Iraq are prepared to talk and move toward putting away their arms--and the U.S. is willing to listen. An account of the secret meeting between the senior insurgent negotiator and the U.S. military officials was provided to TIME by the insurgent negotiator. He says two such meetings have taken place. While U.S. officials would not confirm the details of any specific meetings, sources in Washington told TIME that for the first time the U.S. is in direct contact with members of the Sunni insurgency, including former members of Saddam's Baathist regime. Pentagon officials say the secret contacts with insurgent leaders are being conducted mainly by U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers. A Western observer close to the discussions says that "there is no authorized dialogue with the insurgents" but that the U.S. has joined "back-channel" communications with rebels. Says the observer: "There's a lot bubbling under the surface today."

Over the course of the war in Iraq, as the anti-U.S. resistance has grown in size and intensity, Administration officials have been steadfast in their refusal to negotiate with enemy fighters. But in recent months, the persistence of the fighting and signs of division in the ranks of the insurgency have prompted some U.S. officials to seek a political solution. And Pentagon and intelligence officials hope the high voter turnout in last month's election will deflate the morale of the insurgents and persuade more of them to come in from the cold.

Hard-line Islamist fighters like Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda group will not compromise in their campaign to create an Islamic state. But in interviews with TIME, senior Iraqi insurgent commanders said several "nationalist" rebel groups--composed predominantly of ex--military officers and what the Pentagon dubs "former regime elements"--have moved toward a strategy of "fight and negotiate." Although they have no immediate plans to halt attacks on U.S. troops, they say their aim is to establish a political identity that can represent disenfranchised Sunnis and eventually negotiate an end to the U.S. military's offensive in the Sunni triangle. Their model is Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, which ultimately earned the I.R.A. a role in the Northern Ireland peace process. "That's what we're working for, to have a political face appear from the battlefield, to unify the groups, to resist the aggressor and put our views to the people," says a battle commander in the upper tiers of the insurgency who asked to be identified by his nom de guerre, Abu Marwan. Another negotiator, called Abu Mohammed, told TIME, "Despite what has happened, the possibility for negotiation is still open."

Read the whole thing. Ware's story jibes with Patrick Quinn's AP account of the Sunni response to both the election and the latest string of suicide attacks:

As the Shiite majority prepared to take control of the country's first freely elected government, tribal chiefs representing Sunni Arabs in six provinces issued a list of demands – including participation in the government and drafting a new constitution – after previously refusing to acknowledge the vote's legitimacy.

"We made a big mistake when we didn't vote," said Sheik Hathal Younis Yahiya, 49, a representative from northern Nineveh. "Our votes were very important."

....Gathering in a central Baghdad hotel, about 70 tribal leaders from the provinces of Baghdad, Kirkuk, Salaheddin, Diyala, Anbar and Nineveh, tried to devise a strategy for participation in a future government. There was an air of desperation in some quarters of the smoke-filled conference room.

"When we said that we are not going to take part, that didn't mean that we are not going to take part in the political process. We have to take part in the political process and draft the new constitution," said Adnan al-Duleimi, the head of Sunni Endowments in Baghdad....

Meanwhile, a powerful Sunni organization believed to have ties with the insurgents sought Sunday to condemn the weekend attacks that left nearly 100 Iraqis dead.

"We won't remain silent over those crimes which target the Iraqi people Sunnis or Shiites, Islamic or non-Islamic," Sheik Harith al-Dhari, of the Association Muslim Scholars, told a news conference.

Iraqis, he said, should unite "against those who are trying to incite hatred between us."

They include Iraq's leading terror mastermind, the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Even in a best-case scenario, successful negotiations with the Baathist insurgents would not end the violence in Iraq that Zarqawi and others would generate. And, if memory serves, the Sunnis made similar noises about participating in the political process after Hussein's capture.

Still, these are very encouraging signs.


UPDATE: Be sure to check out Phil Carter's post on the spontaneous creation of anti-insurgency militias in Iraq.

posted by Dan on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM


I'm surprised that the negotiations story did not get more attention on Sunday so glad to see it flagged here. There is the encouraging interpretation that the insurgency can be split -- but also the usual moral hazard problem, in the risk of a a perception that sufficient persistent violence can bring the US to the negotiating table.

posted by: P O'Neill on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

Some of those spontaneous militias are going to turn into death squads, and 10 years later we'll be held responsible. (Or maybe it will happen sooner.)

posted by: Bob McGrew on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

Thanks Mr. Drezner. I linked to this amazing news... =)

posted by: Jason Broander on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

"Some of those spontaneous militias are going to turn into death squads, and 10 years later we'll be held responsible. (Or maybe it will happen sooner.)"

Yes, that's right. And there will also almost certainly be financial scandals. This is why we must approach these matters in a mature manner. The good outweighs the bad. Things are far better now than before with Saddam Hussein.

posted by: David Thomson on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

It sounds like they see the shia-dominated national government will try to get a lot of independence from the USA.

So they want to make a better deal; we support the insurgents and they take over the country for us.

I think the no-negotiation policy was a mistake. We should have a policy -- in iraq and everywhere -- that anybody who wants to can come in and tell us about themselves and tell us what they want and how to contact them. What do we lose? If we listen to chess clubs and numismatic societies we aren't giving special recognition when we listen to insurgents too. And we're better off when they tell us what they want. We don't necessarily find out which insurgent groups actually have clout until later, but we don't lose by having their info on file.

posted by: J Thomas on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

Hey this is fantastic!

We are now negotiating to arm the 'terrorist' remnants of Saddam's old Baathist regime so they can fight the new government run by democratically elected Shiites.

What great moral clarity!

posted by: Night Owl on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

I'm not sure I set too much store on backchannels with insurgent leaders. The Time story isn't explicit as to what these guys want (sorry, but " unify the groups, to resist the aggressor and put our views to the people" could mean anything), but they are likely to be angling for two things we can't give them -- either a return to a privileged position for Sunni Arabs who worked for the former regime or a withdrawal of American troops from Sunni Arab areas that would allow the insurgency to rest, regroup, purge its shaky elements and take up the fight against the new Iraqi government later.

I'm not opposed to talks, I just don't think it likely they will lead anywhere.

I am more optimistic about Sunni Arabs willing to say publicly that they are willing to participate in post-election Iraqi politics. Given the known tactics of the insurgency such public statements require some amount of courage, and are moreover a sign that some Sunni Arabs are beginning to consider their position vis a vis other Iraqis rather than dwelling on the fiction that the insurgency represents some kind of countrywide resistance to occupation. They may also represent the beginning of understanding as to what repeated massacres of Shiites and Kurds by Sunni Arabs could mean for them if they continue.

posted by: Zathras on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

I tend to agree with Zathras. Negotiations of this type are notoriously useless. It is certainly not a sign of strength for the insurgents. Much more important is the growing consensus amongst Sunni leaders that joining the political process is inevitable. America has little place in this, it will be important for us to keep our heads down and let the Iraqis deal with each other without the taint of American interference.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

If it should actually come to pass, watching a schism form in the insurgency between Baath-inflected national socialists and Zarqawi's Islamofascists might serve as an illuminative echo of region-wide trends. Learning to divide and conquer in Iraq could yield invaluable lessons for the overall War on Terror. The trick is not to allow the dramatic pall of Islamic fascism to soften our appraisal of its secular counterpart.

posted by: John-Paul Pagano on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

This smells like the WMD fiasco. There is no
such thing as a "national-insurgency". You have
a huge number of groups committing attacks for
all kinds of reasons.

Besides, al quada has already won in Iraq. It's
job was to use the chaos to establish under-
ground railroad from Pakistan to Europe via:
Pakistan -> Iran -> Iraq -> Turkey -> Europe;
and also to establish safe houses along the
way for it's agents.

This could not be done with Saddam in power.

Somewhere along in time things will settle down.
But it won't be any kind of victory for the West.

posted by: James on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

"This could not be done with Saddam in power."

Zarqawi didnt seem to have any trouble. And where do you get your information on AQs strategy? You might want to check your geography, Iran borders Turkey directly, a jaunt through Iraq where American strykers and attack helicopters prowl would be unnecessary.

"But it won't be any kind of victory for the West."

Sure. Tell that to the crowds calling for self determination in Lebanon and Egypt.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

It is interesting that the model of the I.R.A. was mentioned as I understand that today the government of Ireland has turned against the I.R.A. by "naming names" of the top leaders. What if anything this has to do with the "model" in Iraq I do not know, but I do find it somewhat ironic.

posted by: Bradford Osburn on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

Funny, since the crowds in Saudi Arabia did not vote for the modernizing and secular liberal candidates but the religous backed and socially conservative candidates. Despite the propaganda, electionds do NOT equal democracy.

As for the "growing consensus" of Sunni leaders that find negotiation essential, I am afraid that it is yet another false dawn. It is amusing since many months ago I challenged Mr. Buehner to decide by this X-mas past whether or not there was enough evidence to judge the Iraqi adventure a failure or not. He agreed at that time that this was a reasonable time schedule.

Now almost three months past it, I still find him grasping for straws. Iraq is sunk people. How many times did the NVA negotiate with Nixon? Did it ever solve anything? Will people ever learn from history? Many, no, and no.

The simple fact is that it is not the Sunnis that are the problem, it is the Shiites and the Kurds. The Kurds because they may make a break for de jure independence or unreasonable demands on Kirkurk restoration that may fracture the country, and the Shiites because they are swinging heavily toward the theocratic end of the spectrum of church-state relations.

The concept that the success or failure of the venture rests with the minority Sunnis is ridiculous. As a matter of fact, the real danger to us comes precisely from these spontaneous anti-Baathist counter-insurgency groups. They are the real threat to both America and the success of the occupation.

Does that sound paranoid? Only if one is unfamiliar with the history of the Taliban and Afghanistan.

As it turns out, most of the Iraq government brutality being carried out nowadays is being done by Shiites according to news reports which I am sure that most of you don't bother to read. These same reports indicate the Sistani is preparing to exercise a de facto clerical rule - by making the governing coalition submit PM candidates to him for vetting and approval.

You can dress this up any way you like or grasp at straws but if liberalization or democracy is the real goal, then the venture is on the brink of the abyss. The particular disposition of the Sunnis is only a small part in the tragedy unfolding.

posted by: oldman on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

Oldman, Sistani has publicly said that anybody the assembly agrees to for PM is fine with him. He might secretly require them to get his approval, but at least he makes a show of democracy.

The US embassy hasn't made any such claim; there have been reports that they must get our approval also and as far as I've heard those reports have not been denied.

posted by: J Thomas on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

"As for the "growing consensus" of Sunni leaders that find negotiation essential, I am afraid that it is yet another false dawn. It is amusing since many months ago I challenged Mr. Buehner to decide by this X-mas past whether or not there was enough evidence to judge the Iraqi adventure a failure or not. He agreed at that time that this was a reasonable time schedule."

I'd accept a possibility that the elections may have made a fundamental change. It's worth another three months to see. Call it the beginning of april. I had thought there was even a chance that the "handover" might have made a difference. But then Allawi announced an amnesty and Bremer announced there could be no amnesty for insurgents who'd shot at americans, and Allawi folded. And Allawi said he was going to buy tanks and Bremer announced the budget was already set and there was no money for tanks. And by the time Allawi OKed attacks on Najaf, Karballah, Kut, and Fallujah the handover was completely dead.

This time it might make a difference. Give it a few months to see. If by april the iraqi government tells us to get out, then it means maybe we won after all. If not then I'll have to agree it's a continuing failure.

posted by: J Thomas on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

"Zarqawi didnt seem to have any trouble. "
True to a small degree...Zarqawi was stuck in
northern iraq, in kurd territory near iran west
border, outside Saddams control. Now he/AQ has
the entire landscape of iraq to maneuver in.
Chaos breeds wide opportunity if used right.

"Iran borders Turkey directly"
True...a northern route. But now the entire
west border of iran is useable: open north to
south for routing agents. If I was running an
organization like AQ I would want multiple routes
and entry points. The more the better. AQ now has
the old northern route, middle route and a southern
route; And all points in-between. Plus another
direct route to jordan without going though turkey.

"a jaunt through Iraq where American strykers
and attack helicopters prowl would be unnecessary."
Seems a likely deterrent, but it's not. You can
set up an undeground railroad and safehouses in war
or peace time. Tis easier in peace time though.

" "But it won't be any kind of victory for the West." "
"Sure. Tell that to the crowds calling for self
determination in Lebanon and Egypt."

Ok, will do...But "self-determination struggles"
and some type of "victory for the 'West'" don't
have to be connected. And usually aren't.
Example: France has a self-determinating society.
But France thinks the U.S. was, and still is, insane
for going into iraq. The victory for the 'West',
(and I really mean more the United States), was
suppose to be a victory over AQ and terrorism, with
a touch of WMD's thrown in for good measure.

The victory goal was switched in the middle of the
game from terrorism TO self-determination.
If you want to call self-determination a victory,
by all means do so. But terrorism/AQ won another
war goal. The two do not have to be connected.

Iraq will one day have a good society to live in;
but AQ will be there as well. So...Who won?
I guess everyone did...what a way to fight a war.

As for Lebanon, they want Syrian troops out. They
feel they now can do the full self-determination
thing by themselves.

As for Egypt, They want to remove the authoritarian
government too for real self-determination. Kinda
hard to do when the United States and the Egyptian
government are on friendly terms.

Makes the call for self-determination ring hollow.

And be careful what you wish for about self-determination.
Remember France? :)

Sorry for the long post....

posted by: James on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]


While I admire your patience I think it is misplaced. The fulcrum of causality has never laid with the elections or the electoral mandate of the government. The issue has always boiled down to either the US could run Iraq competently enough to stabilize it. This is still spinning its wells.

Barring a failure to stabilize it, the secondary question was that would there be political cooperation or antagonism between the three major groups? I would submit that the candidate for Prime Minister which even the NYT calls an Islamacist and clerical-backed candidate is poised to in all likelihood polarize relations between the three factions.

Therefore on the two matters of importance - whether we could stabilize Iraq or if not at least give rise to a stable political order the elections have not really helped at all. It is a mistake to confuse electoral participation with national unity or ethnic cooperation. On those fronts we are if anything worse off than ever since the kurds have been emboldened in their demands and the islamacists empowered.

posted by: oldman on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

"Nope, no Bin Ladden over there," said Mr. Bush, as another picture showed the leader of the free world looking under a couch. "Maybe under here," he continued to more laughter.

"How to Appease Bin Ladden and Keep His Backers Happy? (Washington Time)
"How Do You Lose the Man Who Killed 3000 Americans on American Soil?" (National Review)
"What Excuse Can You Use to Kill 500,000 Iraqis?" (Weekly Standard)
"How to Avoid Saudi Arabian and Pakistani Rage For Capturing the Man Who Killed Thousands of Americans?" (Commentary)
"How Can Bush and Patriotic Right-Wing Americans Assist Terrorist Who Desire To Kill More Americans? (Talon)
"How Can Bush and Patriotic Right-Wing Americans Assist the Spread of Iranian Influence In the Region? (NewsMax)

posted by: NeoDude on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

Oldman, I agree that it doesn't look good.

But if there's any chance to salvage something from all this, it comes from the various iraqis taking initiative and choosing to cooperate. If they choose to cooperate well enough to mostly end the iraqi-on-iraqi gang violence and mostly end the iraqi-on-iraqi political violence, then they can push us out.

But if they can't cooperate that well we'll go on trying to do divide-and-conquer and we'll stay until we're too ground down to keep it going. We should be able to tell whether it's failing in 3 months or so.

It's the best hope. It's almost the last hope.

If this one fails, the single last best hope is that we do something so mean and so stupid that Sistani (or his heir) leads a big bunch of unarmed civilians to tell us to go away, and we go. And if that one fails then the fat is truly in the fire.

posted by: J Thomas on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

The story is not that insurgents are willing to talk to the US. The story is that the US is willing to talk to the insurgents! Insurgents (or at least some factions of insurgents) are always willing to negotiate. They want the US out, and the realize that a US pullout will almost certainly take the form of a face-saving negotiated agreement, rather than a crushing defeat. That the US is willing to talk to these people seems to me to be evidence that the US military has admitted to themselves that the insurgency cannot be defeated militarily.

posted by: the exile on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

Exile, you might be right. But I don't think we should assign too much significance to single events like this. For all we know the US military is trying to manage the news, and they announced this when they did to reduce the impact of some other news coming out about the same time. They could have a list of things to announce for that purpose, and this had just reached the top of the list.

It might very well be that they've decided they can't get a military victory (which various military leaders have been saying all along) and they need to negotiate. But it's also possible they've decided to do it now for some trivial reason, knowing that it has no significant long-term consequences unless they let it.

I still lean to the idea that they're telling the new iraqi government that if the government gets too much out of line the US can negotiate with the insurgents against them. It would be hard to tell the US public we've switched sides and we're working with the islamofascist insurgents instead of the democraticly-elected government, but if necessary probably this administration could pull it off. It's the one thing they're good at.

posted by: J Thomas on 02.20.05 at 09:21 PM [permalink]

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