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US confirms direct meetings with insurgent leaders

WASHINGTON -- The US military in Iraq has been holding face-to-face meetings with some Iraqi leaders of the insurgency there, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the US commander in charge of Iraq confirmed yesterday.

The talks are part of the military's revised campaign to drive a wedge between the Iraqi insurgents and foreigners, according to US commanders. Pentagon officials have acknowledged the strategy but have not, until now, spoken openly about efforts to contact some Iraqi insurgent leaders.

Asked to respond to a report that US military representatives met with several Sunni Iraqi insurgents twice in June, Rumsfeld told Fox News ''there have probably been many more than that" and described the contacts as an effort to ''split people off and get some people to be supportive" of the political process in Iraq.

Other parts of the US government, including the State Department and CIA, have also been holding secret meetings with Iraqi insurgent factions in an effort to stop the violence and coax them into the political process, according to US government officials and others who have participated in the efforts.

The military plan, approved in August 2004, seeks to make a distinction between Iraqi insurgents who are attacking US troops because they are hostile to their presence, and foreign insurgents responsible for most of the suicide bombings -- which have killed more than 1,200 people in the last couple of months -- and whose larger political aims are unclear.

General John Abizaid, commander of the US Central Command who is in charge of the war in Iraq, told CNN yesterday that ''US officials and Iraqi officials are looking for the right people in the Sunni community to talk to in order to ensure that the Sunni Arab community becomes part of the political process. And clearly we know that the vast majority of the insurgents are from the Sunni Arab community. It makes sense to talk to them."

But, Abizaid added, ''We're not going to compromise with Zarqawi," a reference to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who is believed to be leading that part of the insurgency involving foreign fighters, particularly Islamic extremists arriving from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

Rumsfeld compared the meetings to those Afghan President Hamid Karzai held with the Taliban, against whom the United States waged war in 2001. ''The same thing's going on in Iraq," he said.

Rumsfeld and Abizaid were responding to an article in the Sunday Times of London, which reported that the meetings were held June 3 and June 13 at a summer villa near Balad, 40 miles north of Baghdad.

Citing two Iraqi sources, the newspaper said that among the Sunnis in attendance was a representative from the Ansar al-Sunna Army, which claimed responsibility for killing 22 people in the dining hall of a US base at Mosul, and another from the Islamic Army in Iraq, which claimed responsibility for the murder of Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni.

The newspaper said the insurgents ''had agreed beforehand to focus their main demand" on a guaranteed timetable of US withdrawal. ''We told them it did not matter whether we are talking about one-year or a five-year plan but that we insisted on having a timetable nonetheless," one of the Iraqi sources was quoted as saying.

The newspaper said the meetings were supervised by Ayham al-Samurai, a Sunni Muslim who lived in the United States for 20 years and returned to Iraq to become electricity minister in the new government.

The meeting included a senior military and a senior intelligence officer, a civilian staff aide from Congress, and a representative of the US embassy in Baghdad.

During a series of interviews yesterday, Rumsfeld said the insurgency could last as long as 12 years but the role of US and foreign troops would diminish as Iraqi forces strengthen.

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