By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 28, 2005; 10:00 AM
Once again, the Sunday Times scooped the U.S. press on a big Iraq war story. "U.S. in Talks with Iraq Rebels," the London newspaper reported this weekend.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quickly confirmed the story and downplayed it, suggesting it should not be surprising that U.S. officials were secretly negotiating with battlefield enemies. Rumsfeld and U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. George W. Casey Jr. made an important distinction: The U.S. was talking to Sunnis violently opposed to the occupation, not foreign fighters linked to Abu Musab Zarqawi.
But the Arab News in Saudi Arabia, among others, was surprised and didn't make the distinction. "U.S. Officials Held Talks With Terrorists" was their headline.
As with the Downing Street Memo, the Times was quicker than any American news organization to document the gap between rhetoric and reality of U.S. policy in Iraq.
The president will address the American people Tuesday night amid mounting questions about claims of progress in Iraq. Polls show once solid public support for the war has dissipated. Restive Republicans are increasingly critical. The coverage in the international online media highlights the administration's problem. While the White House complains that news organizations ignore signs of progress in Iraq, the Iraqi press itself is full of reports of chaos and corruption.
The secret negotiations, according to the Sunday Times, suggest how the United States may be trying to ease its predicament. "The talks appear to represent the first serious effort by Americans and Iraqi insurgents to find common ground since violence intensified in the spring," the paper said.
The Times story, based on unidentified Iraqi sources, described two meetings earlier this month between an American team that "included senior military and intelligence officers, a civilian staffer from Congress and a representative of the US embassy in Baghdad." Representatives for insurgent groups included members of Ansar al-Sunna, "which has carried out numerous suicide bombings and killed 22 people in the dining hall of an American base at Mosul last Christmas," the story said.
"Washington seems to be gingerly probing for ways of defusing home-grown Iraqi opposition and of isolating the foreign Islamic militants who have flooded into Iraq to wage holy war against America under the command of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq," said the Sunday Times.
The United States has also been talking to leaders of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party, according to al-Mutamar, a Baghdad daily.
"The interim leadership of the dissolved Ba'ath party is holding negotiations with the Americans but not with the Iraqi government," said a summary of the June 21 story translated by the Iraqi Press Monitor.
"A party leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the negotiators have presented a list of conditions issued by the party, including freeing arrested members and ending the hunt for its members. "
Several analysts told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that they doubted the talks would help. David Hartwell, a Middle East expert with the London-based "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment," says negotiating with insurgents is a difficult task for an occupying power ."
"The problem that the Americans have is legitimacy and credibility," Hartwell was quoted as saying. "I think if the Iraqi government [itself] was trying to carry out this sort of contacts, I think they would achieve [more] as they have their own contacts with the insurgent groups, they might stand more chances to success. I think the American problem is that they're not just wanted and anything that is done by them is immediately counterproductive."
But Yahia Said, a researcher on Iraq at the London School of Economics, said the current Shiite-led government also "suffers from 'a profound lack of legitimacy' and is seen by some as an American stooge. Many in Iraq are unhappy that the government did not ask the coalition forces to present a plan for the withdrawal of foreign troops as it has promised during the election campaign."
No small reason for the government's lack of credibility, says the Baghdad daily Azzaman, is that "almost everyday there is a new plan to combat corruption and a new military operation to restore security and order but the situation gets worse and worse. "
"Iraq is in the midst of what is internationally now being described as ' the biggest corruption scandal in history ,'" says another recent story in Azzaman.
"Iraqis wonder where the billions they hear about are going and whether the billions more their government is asking for will improve conditions in the violence-hit country."
The story blames the United States for the corruption.
"Corruption spiraled in the months the United States administered the country and went beyond control with the establishing of the Governing Council and the first interim government and there is no sign it will be ever contained."
Such stories are rife in the Iraqi press. A scathing commentary in the Baghdad daily Al-Mashriq says the country's oil ministry is incapable of halting "thieves" who sell petroleum on the black market. Al Bayan reports that the Baghdad provincial council, "heavily criticized for poor services," has fired four director generals as part of its anti-corruption drive. The BBC concludes that " There is massive corruption in most Iraqi government ministries."
The result, says another BBC story, is that "despite billions of dollars spent in Iraq, there is very little to show for it."
With persistent criticism in Iraq, ongoing violence and talks with insurgents so far yielding little results, President Bush has some explaining to do.
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