BAGHDAD — The U.S. Embassy has held indirect talks with members of violent Iraqi insurgent groups, a U.S. official said Wednesday, edging back from a long-standing position not to negotiate with terrorists or those who have American or Iraqi blood on their hands.
"People stop shooting at us, and we -- and I think the Iraqi government -- are ready to engage," said the U.S. official, who spoke to a group of Western reporters on condition of anonymity. "People willing to condemn the use of violence, particularly against the Iraqi people, we're willing to engage."
The U.S. is hoping to persuade Iraq's insurgents to lay down their weapons and join the political process. But the insurgency is thought to be made up of diverse groups of fighters, and it is unclear how broad a cross-section has been involved in the contacts with the United States.
No details on the substance of the talks were made public, and it was not known whether they had yielded any results.
Reports of meetings between figures associated with the insurgency and American officials began emerging earlier this year.
U.S. military commanders in war-torn swaths of Iraq have long sent olive branches and ultimatums to militants through local tribal and religious leaders. A Pentagon official, who declined to be identified by name because of the subject's sensitivity, described those interactions as informal and non-substantive. "There has been some dialogue with these guys, but no negotiations," the official said.
The talks confirmed by the U.S. official in Baghdad on Wednesday appeared to be more formal contacts between insurgents and U.S. diplomats, mainly using Sunni Arab political and religious figures as go-betweens. Abdel Salam Kubaisi, a leader of the Muslim Scholars Assn., an influential Sunni Arab group, said he knew of at least three instances in which figures close to the insurgency had approached the U.S. Embassy about the prospects of cutting a deal, the latest within the last week.
More than 1,680 U.S. troops, and thousands of Iraqis, have been killed as Iraq's insurgency has raged. For months, Iraq's interim leaders have been in contact with representatives of insurgent groups, trying to bring them into the political process. But the new participation of the Americans in such talks might help convince the guerrillas that the negotiations could have substantial results.
The involvement of diplomats in indirect negotiations with insurgents may also be a signal that the U.S. is subtly shifting to a more pragmatic and less rigid policy as casualties continue to mount more than two years after the March 2003 invasion.
The discussions could also indicate a new willingness on the part of guerrillas to lay down their weapons. Former Electricity Minister Ayham Sameraei, a Sunni Arab, told Associated Press this week that the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Mujahedin Army, two militant groups that have claimed responsibility for attacks on Americans and kidnappings of foreigners, have approached him about the prospect of making peace with the new Iraqi government.
Indirect talks with American officials started six to eight weeks ago, said an insurgent leader in the western town of Ramadi.
"There is a secret kind of dialogue between the resistance and the Americans," said the man, known by the nickname Abu Diham. "It's done through mediators. We try to put our conditions forward to the Americans."
Among their demands are an end to U.S. troops' raids on homes, an amnesty for fighters and the release of prisoners.
The Americans say their message is that the longer the insurgents fight, the longer U.S. troops will stay.
"We really are sincere when we say the only reason we're staying here is that you're shooting at us to try and get us out," one U.S. official in Baghdad said recently.
Deep disagreements complicate any potential settlement between insurgents and Americans and their Iraqi allies. Many Sunni Arab politicians have demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops. The Bush administration and the transitional government dominated by Shiite Muslims and Kurds have resisted setting any date for a withdrawal of U.S. forces, saying it cannot happen until Iraqi police and military forces become stronger.
Although some Iraqi politicians, including President Jalal Talabani, have floated the idea of an amnesty, the Bush administration and leading figures in the Iraqi government insist that those who have committed violence must face justice before entering the country's political mainstream.
Asked about U.S. talks with insurgents, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that Iraqis must take the lead in persuading the fighters to lay down their arms.
"There have been innocent Iraqis who have been killed by insurgent activities and terrorist activities," she told reporters in Washington. "It is clearly an Iraqi process, and we'll try to be supportive of it."