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Iraqis may allow Baathists to return

AP | March 26, 2007

The departing U.S. ambassador said Monday that talks with insurgent representatives are focusing on persuading them to join forces against al-Qaida, hoping to take advantage of anger over attacks increasingly targeting Sunnis as well as Shiites.

In a farewell news conference, Zalmay Khalilzad said he was cautiously optimistic about efforts to bring stability to Iraq.

"In my view, though difficult challenges lie ahead and there is a long way to go, Iraq is fundamentally headed in the right direction and success is possible," he said, pointing to a nearly 25 percent reduction in violence during a six-week-old security crackdown in Baghdad as well as economic progress.

He acknowledged, however, that he was leaving his post with a litany of unfinished business, including an oil law that is waiting for parliamentary approval, and he called on Iraqi leaders to make progress on legislative and political measures to bring disaffected Sunnis into the political fold.

"The members of the coalition as well as other countries have made enormous sacrifices to give Iraqis a chance to build a stable and democratic order," Khalilzad said. "Iraqis must not lose this opportunity, and they must step up and take the tough decisions necessary for success."

The Afghan-born diplomat, who has been nominated by President Bush to be ambassador to the United Nations, said American Embassy and Iraqi officials had talked to people representing insurgent groups. But he ruled out contact with al-Qaida in Iraq, which has been blamed for many high-profile suicide bombings.

"We have had discussions with those groups," Khalilzad said. "They are continuing to take place and I think one of the challenges is how to separate more and more groups away from al-Qaida." He declined to provide details about the contacts.

U.S. officials have been working for years to encourage dialogue with Iraqi groups including major Sunni insurgent groups, except al-Qaida. Khalilzad has said previously that U.S. officials have met with people linked to the Sunni insurgency, and America's new top general in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said this month that dialogue was necessary because force alone cannot halt the violence.

But Khalilzad said Monday that the talks have shifted from "unreasonable demands" by the groups for a U.S. withdrawal to forming an alliance against al-Qaida. He said the effort has gained support among tribal leaders and even some insurgents.

"Iraqis are uniting against al-Qaida," he said. "Coalition commanders have been able to engage some insurgents to explore ways to collaborate in fighting the terrorists. These insurgents are also in touch with the government seeking reconciliation and cooperation in the fight against the al-Qaida terrorists and joining the government in a reconciliation program."

Khalilzad said the U.S. hopes to build on that momentum.

"We have talked to groups who have not participated in the political process, who have ties with some of the insurgent groups who are reconcilable insurgents," he said. "The terrorists are irreconcilable. There cannot be reconciliation with al-Qaida. They have to be brought to justice, but there are groups that resisted the democratic change, the change in Iraq."

His comments came as debate heated up in the U.S. over a Democratic push for a bill that would set a 2008 date for the withdrawal of American forces. The House narrowly passed a bill Friday that would pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year, but would require that combat troops come home from Iraq before September 2008 or earlier if the Iraqi government did not meet certain requirements. Bush has made clear he will veto any such legislation.

The ambassador who will be replaced by the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Ryan Crocker said Iraqi leaders should take it as a warning.

"I know that we are an impatient people, and I constantly signal to the Iraqi leaders that our patience, or the patience of the American people, is running out," he said.

Khalilzad's remarks coincided with the eruption of sectarian violence in Sunni-Shiite towns south of the capital Monday and over the weekend.

Two explosions likely caused by rockets struck the heavily fortified Green Zone hours after his speech, slightly wounding three people, U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said.

Authorities in Iskandariyah imposed a curfew after two people were killed and two wounded in sectarian clashes sparked by an attack Monday by suspected Shiite militants on a Sunni mosque, police said. Iraqi and U.S. forces sealed off the area around the mosque, but clashes erupted elsewhere in the town.

A bomb also went off near a Sunni mosque in Mahaweel, damaging the building but causing no casualties, police said.

On Sunday, suspected Shiite militants attacked a Sunni mosque in Haswa, a town near both Iskandariyah and Mahaweel. The attack was in apparent retaliation for a suicide truck bombing against a Shiite mosque that killed 11 people Saturday in Haswa.

At least 35 people were killed or found dead Monday in Iraq, including two civilians in a suicide car bombing against an Iraqi checkpoint in central Baghdad, and 15 bullet-riddled bodies in Baghdad.

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