Zalmay Khalilzad, the departing US ambassador to Iraq, told journalists in Baghdad on March 26 that US embassy and military officials had met several times with representatives of Iraqi groups that have ties to the anti-occupation resistance movement.
Associated Press reported that Khalilzad, who is US President George Bush's nominee for Washington's ambassador to the UN, said: "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 declined to provide details about the contacts with anti-occupation groups, other than saying US officials were seeking to take advantage of a growing schism between "reconcilable insurgents" and the al Qaeda in Iraq group, which he blamed for fomenting sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis. "Iraqis are uniting against al Qaeda", Khalilzad said, adding that it had "declared war on both sects now",
The March 26 New York Times reported that unnamed US officials had told the paper that the talks — some of which took place in Jordan — began in early 2006 and were with representatives of the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI) and the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The NYT described the organisations as the "two leading nationalist groups" among those fighting US forces.
Both the IAI and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement of Iraq, emerged a few months after the March 2003 US-British-Australian invasion, and are thought by Western analysts to be led by former Baathist military officers.
On March 21, AP reported that Saad Yousif al Muttalibi, of the Iraqi "national dialogue" ministry, had told the wire service that talks with representatives of these groups had taken place inside and outside Iraq over the past three months.
Muttalibi said that both groups insist they will only cease guerrilla attacks on US and other coalition forces and the US-controlled Iraqi security forces (ISF) if a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq is announced. Washington's refusal to announce any withdrawal timetable "is the biggest stumbling block to an agreement", he said.
In October, al Qaeda in Iraq and its allied Sunni pan-Islamist groups in the Mujaheedin Shura Council, announced the establishment of an "Islamic State of Iraq", but the mainstream resistance groups publicly spurned it, saying it was a ploy to take over the resistance movement.
"The Islamic Army and 1920 Revolution Brigade are fighting al Qaeda", Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni member of parliament for the secular nationalist Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, told the March 27 Los Angeles Times. "Al Qaeda wants them to join al Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq. They refused and this is why they are fighting now."
Mutlak said there had been heavy fighting between the groups in Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, and that conflict between them had also spread to Diyala province, north of Baghdad.
The LA Times reported that "leaders from two of the prominent groups fighting US troops said the divisions between their forces and Al Qaeda were serious".
A spokesperson for the General Command of the Iraqi Armed Forces, a Baathist resistance group that operates in Anbar province, told the LA Times that "al Qaeda killed two of our best members, General Mohammed and General Saab, in Ramadi, so we took revenge and now we fight al Qaeda".
In Diyala province, a spokesperson for the 1920 Revolution Brigades told the LA Times: "In the past, we agreed [with al Qaeda in Iraq] in terms of the goal of resisting the occupation and expelling the occupation. We have some disagreements with al Qaeda, especially about targeting civilians, places of worship, state civilian institutions and services ...
"Now we have reached a dead end and we disavow what al Qaeda is doing. But until now, we haven't thought about fighting with them. We are counselling them, and in case they continue, we will cut off our aid and the logistical and intelligence support."
Despite the sharpening conflict between the mainstream Iraqi resistance groups and al Qaeda in Iraq, resistance attacks on US forces and the ISF are at their most intense since 2003, according to Pentagon figures.
In its most recent report to the US Congress on the Iraq war, released on March 2, the Pentagon provided a graph showing of the weekly average of about 1100 non-coalition/not-ISF attacks in January; 75% were targeted at coalition forces, 15% at the ISF and 10% against civilians.
According to the Pentagon, the US military's "security crackdown" in Baghdad, which began on February 14, has had no impact in reducing the rate at which US soldiers are dying in Iraq.
US troop fatalities in Iraq in January mounted at an average rate of 2.81 per day, and 2.93 per day during February. United Press International reported on March 22 that "67 US soldiers were killed in action in the 22-day period from Feb. 28 through March 21 at an average rate of just over three per day".