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U.S. No Longer Seeks "Defeat" Of Sunni Insurgents

by Gareth Porter

Sunnis Opt For Voting ... AND Armed Resistance

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- While President Bush continued to claim a strategy for "victory" in Iraq in recent speeches, his administration has quietly renounced the goal of defeating the non-al Qaeda Sunni armed organizations there.

The administration is evidently preparing for serious negotiations with the Sunni insurgents, whom it has started referring to as "nationalists," emphasising their opposition to al Qaeda's objectives.

The new policy has thus far gone unnoticed in the media, partly because it has only been articulated by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the spokesman for the U.S. command in Baghdad.

The White House clearly recognizes that the shift could cause serious political problems if and when it becomes widely understood. The Republican Party has just unveiled a new television ad attacking Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean for suggesting that the war in Iraq cannot be won.

Renouncing victory over the Sunni insurgents therefore undercuts the president's political strategy of portraying his policy as one of "staying the course" and attacking the democrats for "cutting and running."

Until recently, the administration treated the indigenous Sunni insurgents as the main enemy in Iraq, measuring progress primarily in terms of the numbers of insurgents killed and captured, and areas "cleared" of insurgent presence. Administration officials portrayed Sunni insurgents as allies of al Qaeda and referred to them as "anti-Iraqi forces."

The hard line toward Sunni insurgents remained even after the administration began last summer to put much greater emphasis on the "political track" of attracting Sunnis into the new government. As recently as mid-November, briefings by the U.S. command described operations in Western Iraq as being against "insurgents" -- not against al Qaeda or "terrorists."

But beginning in late November, both the U.S. command and the U.S. embassy began signaling a dramatic change in Washington's attitude toward Sunni resistance organizations.

On Nov. 24, the top U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, made a point of emphasising the command's understanding of the "capabilities, the vulnerabilities and the intentions of each group of the insurgency -- the foreign fighters, the Iraqi rejectionists and the Saddamists."

He referred to the administration's "deliberate outreach" to the "rejectionists," which would allow them to "become part of the solution and not part of the problem."

That same week, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad announced in an ABC interview that he was prepared to open negotiations with the Sunni insurgents, but not with "Saddamists" or foreign terrorists. And in an interview with Time magazine, Khalilzad, referring specifically to Sunni insurgent groups, said: "We want to deal with their legitimate concerns."

Khalilzad then combined two major indications of a new willingness to accommodate the Sunni insurgents in the same sentence. "The fault line between al-Qaeda and the nationalists seems to have increased," he told Time.

Thus the image of the insurgents had been transformed from "anti-Iraqi forces" to "nationalists." The conflicting objectives of the Sunni resistance groups and the al Qaeda-connected terrorist network were now played up rather than ignored, as in the past.

The clearest articulation of the change in policy to date, however, came in a U.S. command press briefing by Maj. Lynch on Dec. 8. Lynch was asked to what extent the insurgency is "dominated or run by Baathists and rejectionists" and to what extent by "Islamic fundamentalists."

His reply avoided the question of which was more important and instead emphasized the difference between U.S. policy toward the Sunni insurgents and its policy toward al-Qaeda terrorists. Lynch said U.S. operations "are focused on Zarqawi and his network.".

Then he made a crucial distinction. "[W]e've made a conscious decision," he said, "to focus on defeating the terrorists and foreign fighters and disrupting the capabilities of the rest of the insurgents." So his audience wouldn't miss the distinction he was making, Lynch added that "the primary way to disrupt the capability of the rejectionists is through political engagement..."

"Political engagement," as we now know from Khalilzad, means direct negotiations with the leaders of the insurgency. Lynch's answer had been carefully prepared ahead of time and reflected the new administration policy.

The new soft line toward the Sunni insurgents is a belated administration response to the conclusion of the U.S. military commanders in Iraq last summer that the Sunni insurgents cannot be "defeated" and that there must be a political settlement with them..

Gen. George Casey, the commander of all multinational forces in Iraq, declared in an interview in late June that the conflict "will ultimately be settled by negotiation and inclusion in the political process. It will not be settled on the battlefield."

Significantly, Casey did not distinguish between U.S. and Iraqi forces in calling for negotiations, thus differing with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In a press conference that same day, Rumsfeld said, "The coalition forces, the foreign forces, are not going to repress the insurgency," implying that Iraqi forces would be able to do so.

Casey also suggested that the "preliminary talks" that had occurred between U.S. officials and insurgents could lead to actual negotiations. That idea was quickly squelched by the U.S. embassy, evidently on White House orders.

However, a policy debate over how to handle the Sunnis obviously continued within the administration, with the U.S. military leadership in Iraq and Khalilzad pushing for real negotiations. It is now clear that the proponents of accommodation won the debate.

This does not mean that the White House has decided to give in on a timetable for troop withdrawal, which Bush just publicly rejected once again. As Seymour Hersh wrote in the Dec. 5 New Yorker magazine, a think tank source close to Vice President Dick Cheney says the president still believes he can "tough this one out."

And despite its new line on the insurgency, U.S. military operations are in fact still aimed largely at the Sunni insurgents rather than at Al Qaeda.

Nevertheless, the administration's abandonment of the goal of military defeat of the Sunni insurgents and willingness to negotiate with them betrays its "victory" rhetoric.

Such negotiations would certainly have considerable impact on the domestic politics of the war. Such negotiations would become the new focus of public views of Bush's handling of Iraq. That would in turn increase the pressure on the White House to get the insurgent leaders to come to an agreement. Meanwhile, the insurgents can be expected to insist that no agreement is possible without a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal.

The insurgents can also increase the pressure on Bush by making public their offer, reportedly made by insurgent leaders to Arab League officials in Cairo last month, to deliver al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to the Iraqi authorities as part of a peace agreement involving a U.S. withdrawal timetable.

As more people in the United States, including members of Congress, understand that the Sunni resistance is not the enemy, but is the necessary ally in the elimination of al-Qaeda's "terrorist haven" in Iraq, political support for continued U.S. military presence is likely to shrink even further. Why, it may be asked, should U.S. troops stay in Iraq to fight Sunni armed groups who are willing and able to turn in the real enemy in Iraq?

Thus the softening of the administration's policy toward the insurgents could set in motion a train of events that brings the U.S. occupation to an end much more quickly than now seems possible.

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Albion Monitor December 15, 2005 (

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