BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. and Iraqi officials are in contact with representatives of some Sunni Arab insurgent groups to build an alliance against al Qaeda in Iraq, the outgoing U.S. ambassador said on Monday.
Zalmay Khalilzad also said he was cautiously optimistic that “success is possible” in Iraq, but urged leaders to act fast if they were to maintain the support of the impatient U.S. people amid growing pressure for a timetable to withdraw troops.
At his final news conference in Baghdad, he confirmed reports that U.S. embassy and military staff as well as Iraqi government officials had met representatives of insurgent-linked groups on several occasions.
“That process is continuing,” he said.
“One of the main challenges is how to separate more and more groups away from al Qaeda, how to turn them to cooperate with the Iraqi government against al Qaeda,” he said. “That is the strategic objective.”
Earlier The New York Times reported that Khalilzad himself had met Sunni insurgent groups, which include nationalists and former Saddam Hussein sympathizers, such as the Islamic Army in Iraq, a large group of former Baathists and ex-army officers once loyal to the former president, Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi government officials are known to have had contact with insurgent groups in the past but these have never really amounted to much as the groups’ main demand has been for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Khalilzad said their key concern had shifted toward how to fight al Qaeda during recent talks. He said he did not want to give too many details about who was involved in the talks given “al Qaeda’s efforts to derail such efforts.”
STRUGGLE IN ANBAR
Al Qaeda militants have launched of a string of attacks on a group of tribes in western Anbar province that have formed an alliance against the hardline Sunni Islamist group.
The U.S. military said U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major operation on Monday in the west of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, to clear al Qaeda militants who had been intimidating the local population through murders and kidnappings.
U.S. commanders in Anbar have been promoting the tribal alliance against al Qaeda as crucial to ending the violence.
“We have had discussions with various groups,” Khalilzad said. “They have taken place, they are continuing to take place.”
“I did not say we’ve talked to terrorists, we’ve talked to groups who have not participated in the political process who have ties to some insurgents who are reconcilable.”
Khalilzad said he was encouraged be security and political developments in recent months but urged Iraqi leaders to ensure commitments were met swiftly since Americans were increasingly impatient.
“To sustain U.S. support … things have to move at a certain pace,” he said.
He said reasons for optimism included a fall in violence in Baghdad by a quarter since a security crackdown began in February, growing opposition by Sunni tribes to al Qaeda, the improved performance of Iraq’s security forces, and agreement on a new oil law.
“These are positive indicators. They are significant. But for success to be inevitable, more needs to be done,” said the envoy, who has repeatedly pressured the Shi’ite-led government to do more to include Sunni Arabs in the political process.
He said the government must demobilize militias, schedule provincial elections, amend the constitution and reach agreement to “allow insurgents to lay down arms and join the political process.”
“Our challenge remains incentivising the Iraqi government to make these decisions in a timely manner,” he said.