Talking with the Enemy

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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."

But can such talks succeed? A senior official in the U.S. embassy in Baghdad says the nationalist insurgents "want to cut a deal, thinking we get ours and they get theirs." Any deal with the insurgents would be up to the new government, but embassy officials say they believe that reaching an accord should be the new government's top priority.

Behind the scenes, the U.S. is encouraging Sunni leaders and the insurgents to talk with the government. A tougher job may be to convince the leaders of political parties about to assume power—many of whom were brutalized by Baathists now coordinating the insurgency—that it's in their interests to reach a peaceful settlement with their former tormentors. In the U.S. command, there is increasing skepticism that the insurgency can be defeated through military might alone. Says a senior U.S. officer: "The Iraqis are the solution to the insurgency, and they are the solution to our departure."

Insurgent sources say both sides have been feeling each other out for months. Some of the earliest advances were made last year through Jordanian intelligence officers, but insurgents balked at the idea of meeting in Jordan. U.S. diplomats also initiated contact with conservative Sunnis known to have influence with the insurgents, such as Harith al-Dhari, the head of the Association of Muslim Scholars.

Insurgent sources say that last summer a loose amalgam of nationalist groups—Mohammed's Army, al-Nasser al-Saladin, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and perhaps even the Islamic Army of Iraq—met to discuss forging a common political platform.

Meanwhile, some Americans showed openness to a dialogue. In meetings with Sunni tribal leaders, Lieut. Colonel Rick Welch, the senior special-operations civil-military affairs adviser to the commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad, put word out that the military was willing to talk to hard-liners about their grievances and that, as Welch says, "the door is not closed, except for some very top regime guys." Welch, a reservist and prosecutor from Morgan County, Ohio, told TIME, "I don't meet all the insurgent leaders, but I've met some of them." Although not an authorized negotiator, Welch has become a back channel in the nascent U.S. dialogue with the insurgents. Insurgent negotiators confirm to TIME that they have met with Welch.

What do the insurgents want? Top insurgent field commanders and negotiators informed TIME that the rebels have told diplomats and military officers that they support a secular democracy in Iraq but resent the prospect of a government run by exiles who fled to Iran and the West during Saddam's regime. The insurgents also seek a guaranteed timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, a demand the U.S. refuses. But there are some hints of compromise: insurgent negotiators have told their U.S. counterparts they would accept a U.N. peacekeeping force as the U.S. troop presence recedes. Insurgent representative Abu Mohammed says the nationalists would even tolerate U.S. bases on Iraqi soil. "We don't mind if the invader becomes a guest," he says, suggesting a situation akin to the U.S. military presence in Germany and Japan.

As promising as such proffers might sound, it's far too early for optimism. The new U.S. policy of engagement is aimed at driving a wedge between nationalist insurgents and the jihadists. But al-Zarqawi and his allies have silenced nationalists by threatening to kill them if they negotiate. The Western observer close to the discussions says, "Al-Zarqawi keeps pulling the process away from 'fight and negotiate' to 'pure mayhem.'"

The engagement strategy faces another obstacle: the new Iraqi government. Leaders of the victorious political parties say they have no interest in continuing dialogue with the insurgents. "The voters gave us a mandate to attack these insurgents, not negotiate with them," says Humam Bakr Hammoudi, a political strategist for the dominant sciri party. U.S. negotiators say they believe the new government will eventually realize that only a political settlement will subdue the insurgency—which may soon direct its wrath at the new Iraqi rulers if it believes its interests are being ignored.

While some in the Bush Administration might find the idea of backing an accord with archenemy Baathists distasteful, the Western observer says, "I think you've got a pretty flexible [U.S.] government." Now it's up to the others to follow.