US beats a retreat

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Mark Grossman, Washington’s chief envoy to Afghanistan, met Taliban leaders in Qatar as part of US efforts to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table, a senior Afghan official said on Wednesday.

The talks between the Taliban and Marc Grossman came in late January, after he met Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, the official said, asking to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Grossman, President Barack Obama’s chief envoy for war-torn Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan, later briefed Karzai about his talks with Taliban representatives during a visit by the Afghan leader to Italy.

‘I can confirm that Mr Grossman met with the Taliban representatives in Qatar.

‘When the president (Karzai) was in Rome, Grossman came over to his residence and briefed him about his meetings with the Taliban,’ the official said.

The US, which heads a 130,000-strong force fighting a Taliban insurgency against Karzai’s government, has made tentative moves towards talks with them in Qatar, where they plan to open an office.

Karzai, rejected by the Taliban as a ‘puppet’, has said publicly that he supports the plan, but was widely reported to be concerned that he would be sidelined in the Taliban’s talks with the US.

Washington dispatched Grossman to Kabul last month to assure the Afghan president of a leading role once the talks get under way.

The Afghan official said that, during his visit to Kabul, Grossman met Karzai twice and ‘a number of agreements were made over a number of issues concerning Taliban talks’.

He refused to give details but said: ‘Our stance is unchanged: the president wants the talks to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.’

A report in a major US newspaper on Tuesday said the Afghan leader was trying to thwart Washington’s efforts to launch negotiations with the Taliban – a charge strongly denied by Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi.

‘The report is baseless. There’s no truth in it and I strongly dismiss it.

‘President Karzai is not, and has never been, an obstacle to peace talks in Afghanistan. We have our concerns but we have never opposed the peace process.’

Those concerns were simply that any peace process should be led by Afghans, he said.

• Supporters of anti-US Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia fought pitched battles with American forces, on Thursday officially celebrated the departure of the occupiers from Iraq.

The last American soldiers, except for a small number under US embassy authority, departed Iraq in mid-December, after almost nine years in the country.

But the official Sadrist celebration was held on Thursday after the end of Arbaeen, the 40-day period of mourning following the Ashura commemorations, which mark the death in battle of Imam Hussein, a formative event in Shi’ite Islam.

Tens of thousands of people turned out for the event, which was held in Sadr City in northern Baghdad, an area named for Moqtada’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed along with two of Moqtada’s brothers in 1999 by gunmen allegedly sent by Saddam Hussein.

‘The armies of resistance terrified the occupiers, so they left after they lost,’ Moqtada said in a recorded message broadcast on a large screen at the celebrations.

American forces ‘turned from being a liberating army, as they said, into an occupying army,’ he said.

‘The occupying forces were working for strife and destruction and to destabilise security. The occupier is not the one who can bring peace and safety to Iraq, but rather you, and only you.’

At the urging of the cleric, his supporters shouted, ‘Yes, yes, to unity, yes, yes, to peace, yes, yes, to resistance.’

Thousands of Sadr Movement members marched in formation with Iraqi flags at the event, while supporters gathered on the roadside, some holding banners reading, ‘No, no to America, no, no to Israel.’

Among those attending the event, which was held under tight security, were cabinet ministers, members of parliament and religious figures, as well as representatives of some Arab countries, organisers said.

Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, which the cleric has since deactivated, fought – and lost – brutal battles with US forces in Najaf in February and August 2004, and with Iraqi forces backed by the Americans in Sadr City in March 2008.

Hazem al-Araji, one of the leaders of the Sadr Movement, said: ‘Today is the day of the real victory for the people and a message of unity that we throw in the face of the occupier.

‘The occupier can never divide the Iraqis,’ Araji said.

Abbas al-Bayati, an MP from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law list, said: ‘Today, the Sadr Movement is sending a positive message to all of the Iraqi people requesting that they preserve the country’s unity.’