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Alt 4. July 2005, 02:46
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US acknowledges contact with Iraq insurgent intermediaries

BAGHDAD (AFP) - A US official said the embassy in Baghdad is constantly approached by purported insurgent intermediaries but has never "knowingly" met with armed groups.The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, also warned of the "real" threat of sectarian strife in Iraq after a senior aide to Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was killed.
The murder of Sistani's aide was followed by the kidnapping of a Sunni Arab cleric.
Sunni Arabs, unlike the majority Shiites, largely boycotted the January election and are blamed for fueling the country's raging insurgency.
"We have not knowingly met with insurgents... We have met plenty of people sent by insurgents x, y and z, but we have not negotiated through these people with insurgents," said the official.
"We deliver a simple message: stop the violence, otherwise our forces will take you out."
US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday that contacts between US officials and insurgent groups happen all the time.
The US official said these intermediaries are usually Sunni Arab academics, business people, tribal sheikhs and mid-level former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath parties.
He said that in addition to passing on messages by purported unidentified insurgent groups, these intermediaries sometimes press demands ranging from pensions for former army officers to requests that certain provincial officials be fired.
"We cannot deal with that. If you want to negotiate something, go talk to the Iraqi government. The only thing we can tell you is stop fighting. If you continue fighting we will come after you," he said.
The US official said these intermediary approaches shot up by almost "100 percent" since the January election.
"The election created doubts among insurgents," he said.
Iraq's President Jalal Talabani said Tuesday that any negotiations with armed groups were an entirely US affair and that his government had nothing to do with it.
Both Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari have on several occasions expressed willingness to reach out to armed groups not implicated in the killing of civilians, on the condition that those groups were ready to lay down their weapons and enter the political process.
Many in Jaafari's Shiite-dominated government are skeptical about the usefulness of sitting down with armed groups since they have conflicting agendas.
US and Iraqi officials categorise the insurgency as made up of die-hard former Saddamists who dream of restoring the Baath regime and militant foreign fighters brainwashed by the ideology of the Al-Qaeda network and bent on waging holy war against foreign troops in the country.
"There is no unified command, they cannot agree who is in charge," said the US official. "They are very divided, very split."
The US official said his government "feels strongly" that Sunni Arabs should play an active role in drafting the constitution and take part in the next round of elections scheduled for December."They (Sunnis) have to feel they have a place," he said.He said a more active Sunni role might diffuse the insurgency, but not end it altogether.He said the US government was also concerned about instances of intentional targeting of Sunni Arabs by members of Iraq's security forces and Kurdish or Shiite militia."The problem of sectarian tension is real, it requires calm heads on all sides (and) all sides to make a commitment against violence," he said.

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