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US, Sunnis said to be negotiating

Seek to attract insurgents to Iraqi politics

BAGHDAD -- US officials are negotiating with Sunni Arab leaders to pull insurgents into Iraq's political process, a senior US official said yesterday.

An American-Iraqi offensive, meanwhile, killed at least 6 militants. Four other insurgents were blown apart by their own car bomb.

The US official's statement to reporters came after a Sunni Arab politician and a senior Shi'ite leader said they were holding talks with some groups in the insurgency, thought to include as many as 20,000 fighters in their ranks.

''Some insurgents are irredeemable and have to be dealt with in a purely military way, and there are some who are looking to enter the political process under some conditions," the official told a Baghdad briefing, given on condition of anonymity.

Four US soldiers died in separate attacks north of Baghdad, the military said yesterday. One died in a roadside bombing yesterday near Adwar. Two more died in a Tuesday attack on their Tikrit base, while a fourth was killed in a bomb attack just north of the capital.

Insurgents killed at least nine Iraqis, including two government officials, in drive-by shootings and a car bomb as part of the ongoing bloodshed that has left almost 900 people dead in the six weeks since Iraq's new Shi'ite- and Kurd-dominated government was announced April 28.

Even as political efforts to unite Iraq appeared to gain steam, the president, Jalal Talabani, made comments that could anger Sunnis. He publicly praised Shi'ite and Kurdish militias, including the Shi'ite Badr Brigades, which Sunni Arabs accuse of terrorizing and killing members of their once-dominant community.

Top Sunni leaders, sensing their crucial role in the future of Iraq's government, demanded a greater say in drafting the constitution and threatened to boycott the process if they did not get it.

US authorities have negotiated with key Sunni leaders, who are in turn talking with insurgents and trying to persuade them to lay down their arms, the senior US official told reporters. The official did not name the Sunni leaders engaged in dialogue.

The official did not give his name so as not to undercut the new government's authority.

Sunnis form the backbone of Iraq's two-year insurgency.

The official suggested further measures to calm tensions, including absorbing existing militia groups like the Badr Brigades and the Kurdish peshmerga into Iraq's own security forces.

At a conference marking the second anniversary of the Badr Brigades' claimed transformation to a political group, Talabani offered public praise.

''You and your [Kurdish] brothers are the heroes of liberating Iraq," he said. ''You, my brothers, march on without paying attention to the enemies' claims, because you and the [Kurdish militia] are faithful sons of this country."

Talabani's remarks came despite accusations by Sunni leaders that the militia, formed in 1982 to launch cross-border attacks from Iran against Saddam Hussein's forces, has killed members of the minority. The Sunni leaders have demanded it be disarmed and complained it provides intelligence and support for some Shi'ite-dominated special security units.

Sunni Arab criticism of Talabani's remarks was swift.

Abdul-Salam al-Qubeisi, spokesman of the Association of Muslim Scholars, said the president was following ''US policies to prolong the struggle in Iraq and turn it into an Iraq-Iraq conflict."

US and Iraqi soldiers battled militants for a second consecutive day in the northern tip of Iraq, in the ancient city of Tal Afar about 90 miles east of the Syrian border, killing six militants in a gun battle. Another four militants died when a bomb in the car they were driving exploded prematurely.

Tal Afar has been an insurgent stronghold throughout the two-year insurgency, which began shortly after US-led forces invaded Iraq to topple Saddam.

At least 20 Iraqi Army soldiers are feared kidnapped in western Iraq near the Syrian border, an Iraqi Army official said yesterday. They went missing Tuesday after leaving an Iraqi Army base in two minibuses from Akashat, a remote village southwest of Qaim, said Captain Ahmed Hamid.

Sunni Arab leaders set themselves on a collision course with the Shi'ite-led government, threatening to boycott a committee drafting Iraq's constitution unless they are given more seats on the panel.

Sunni Arab support is crucial for Iraq's government, particularly to approve a new constitution. The draft charter will collapse if three of the country's four provinces that are predominantly Sunni Arab vote against it in a referendum later this year.

The Sunnis want 27 representatives instead of the 15 that the Shi'ites are willing to allow them and demand that their members appointed to the 55-member committee be allowed to vote, even though they are not elected to the National Assembly.

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