The outgoing US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has admitted for first time to holding talks with insurgent leaders.
Meanwhile bomb attacks killed five US soldiers in Iraq, the US military said on Monday amid reports that the outgoing US ambassador held talks last year with rebel groups in a bid to curb the country’s raging insurgency.
Four of the Americans were killed in a roadside bombing on Sunday against their patrol in the troubled province of Diyala, where the chief US commander has said his troops are battling Al-Qaeda, Sunni, Shi’ite and even Kurdish insurgents.
Two US troops were also wounded in the attack, while another soldier died in northwestern Baghdad on the same day in another roadside bombing.
The latest casualties brought the US military’s losses to 3,234 in since the March 2003 invasion.
In Iraq’s third city of Mosul, armed men on Sunday killed Sunni tribal leader Mohammed Jassim al-Guud, a member of the Al-Ubada, a significant Arab tribe in northern Iraq, said police Major Mohammed Ahmed.
Guud’s son and nephew were also wounded after the insurgents sprayed his vehicle with gunshots in central Mosul late Sunday.
An Iraqi police major was similarly killed in a Mosul drive-by shooting on Monday while the bodies of two male civilians – one beheaded and one riddled with bullets were found dumped in a western part of the city, Ahmed said.
In an interview with the New York Times published on Monday, Washington’s ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, admitted for the first time to holding talks with presumed insurgent leaders in a bid to lure them into pro-imperialist politics.
‘There were discussions with the representatives of various groups in the aftermath of the elections, and during the formation of the puppet government before the Samarra incident, and some discussions afterwards as well,’ Khalilzad said.
The interview made him the first US official to publicly acknowledge personally holding such talks, which the newspaper said began in early 2006.
The New York Times said among the interlocutors were self-identified representatives of the Islamic Army of Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, two leading nationalist groups that have claimed killings of Americans and Westerners.
Khalilzad also reiterated his position that Baghdad and Washington had to consider granting amnesty to insurgents, just days after Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi said talks were the only way to quell the unrest.
Hashemi told the BBC: ‘I do believe there is no way but to talk to everybody’, with the exception of Al-Qaeda.
Khalilzad, who played a key role in negotiations over a new Iraqi constitution and the formation of the governing coalition, has justified his outreach to insurgents was vital to find consensus.
‘I recognised from the beginning when I came that the big issue was to get an agreement among Iraqis on the basic issues that divided the country,’ he told Western reporters in another interview on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the recently appointed head of US Central Command as part of a shake-up in US top military brass running the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Admiral William Fallon was on Monday continuing his first visit to Iraq in his new post.
US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver said Fallon was due to meet Iraqi government and military leaders.
Elsewhere, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Monday he ‘would not hesitate’ to take part in a regional Arab peace summit amid intense US efforts allegedly to revive the stalled Middle East peace process.
A four-way meeting with Israel, Palestinians, Arab moderates and the Middle East peace Quartet, which includes the European Union, the United Nations, United States and Russia has reportedly been at the centre of discussions between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and regional leaders during her tour.
‘If such an invitation would come my way, I would look at it in a very positive way,’ Olmert told a joint press conference with UN chief Ban Ki-moon in Jerusalem.
‘Assuming I would get a visa, I would not hesitate to participate,’ he added.
The UN’s Ban, who is also on a swing through the region, said such a summit was ‘a very interesting and useful idea to consider but we need more consultations.’
Olmert’s comments came as Rice was in Jordan for meetings with King Abdullah II and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on the third leg of a tour that has already included talks with Arab ‘moderates’ in Egypt and an initial round of consultations with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Rice was due to hold a press conference after returning to Jerusalem later on Monday and holding talks with Olmert for the second time in as many days.
A senior US official travelling with Rice confirmed that a four-way summit bringing together Israel and the so-called ‘Arab quartet’ – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates – was under consideration. He said such a meeting was ‘a good idea’ but added ‘it’s a little premature.’
The official said it remained uncertain whether countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have no formal ties with the Jewish state, would agree to attend a summit with Israeli leaders.
Olmert, who is battling plummeting ratings in Israeli opinion polls, reportedly met privately with a senior Saudi official late last year.
Israel and Arab ‘moderates’, however, have been staking out common ground in recent days, including broadening support for a five-year old Arab peace initiative first floated in 2002 by then Saudi crown prince Abdullah.
At Monday’s press conference, Olmert heaped praise on Abdullah, who is now king.
‘I think the Saudi initiative is a very interesting and challenging manifestation of the leadership qualities and responsibility of King Abdullah,’ Olmert said.
The Saudi plan calls for full Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state, Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territory occupied in the 1967 Six Day War and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Although Israel spurned the initiative when it was initially proposed, Israeli officials have recently said it could serve as a basis for negotiations, provided the clause granting Palestinian refugees the right of return is dropped.
The Saudi initiative is one of the top items at an Arab summit being held in Riyadh on Wednesday.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the blueprint offers ‘the best way of reaching a just and comprehensive solution not just to the Palestinian problem but to all aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict.’