Talking with the Enemy; Part of What's Bringing These People to the Negotiating Table Is Their Fear That Iraq's Insurgency Is Being Taken over by Jihadists

By Zakaria, Fareed | Newsweek, August 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

Talking with the Enemy; Part of What's Bringing These People to the Negotiating Table Is Their Fear That Iraq's Insurgency Is Being Taken over by Jihadists


Zakaria, Fareed, Newsweek


Byline: Fareed Zakaria (Write the author at comments@fareedzakaria.com.)

Gen. George Casey's remark last week that the United States might begin to draw down troops in Iraq reminds me of the words of another George almost 40 years ago. In 1966 a Republican senator from Vermont, George Aiken, had a solution to the morass in Vietnam: "Declare victory and get out." Casey's remarks were not in the same vein, but the basic idea appears to be similar--redefine success to a less demanding level. There's only one problem: the Iraqi insurgency has not yet agreed to this plan. And if it doesn't, leaving Iraq will mean that a large part of the country will remain highly unstable and serve as a training ground for jihadist terror groups. Avoiding that outcome must be the minimum definition of success in Iraq. The good news is there is a real prospect of achieving this new (more modest) goal.

The Iraqi insurgency is, broadly speaking, made up of two parts: a rebellion directed by Baathists and former generals that styles itself as nationalist; and a radical Islamic terror movement, filled with foreigners. America's goal must be to split the insurgency, which can be done only by co-opting some important elements of the Baathist movement. A senior non-U.S. diplomat, who has spoken to all the key figures in Iraq over the past two years, tells me that for months leaders of the insurgency have been putting out feelers that they would like to talk with the United States about a settlement. (U.S. and Iraqi civilian and military officials have confirmed various aspects of this story.) So far the United States has refused to go down this path. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's description of contacts between Army officers and local insurgents is accurate, but these contacts have been few and far between and, more important, neither side has any authority to negotiate anything. Salih al-Mutlaq, whose National Dialogue Council has links to the insurgents, argues that negotiating with them would cripple the jihadists. "If the Americans reach an agreement with the local [Baathist] resistance, there won't be any room for foreign fighters," he says.

My diplomatic source argues that the people he has talked to appear credible and are willing to be tested (by ceasing their attacks for a week, for example). Their message to him has been, "The United States is not our strategic enemy. Our strategic enemy is Iran. We want to end the war with America." That is why they insist on direct talks with the Americans. During Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's reign, they refused to deal with the Iraqi government. "Now their position appears to have softened," the diplomat says. "They will talk to this government, but the United States must be involved as well. …

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