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Daily Column
US Papers Monday: US Met with Militants
Khalilzad Held Talks Last Year; Baghdad's Sunni Wastelands
By GREG HOADLEY 03/26/2007 01:55 AM ET
The Times catches the Post sleeping in today’s edition, sending up a big scoop and an important enterprise report on a day when its rival to the south features uninspired Iraq coverage. Timesman Edward Wong scores an exclusive with his report that the US has in fact engaged in direct negotiations with what it understood to be representatives of armed Sunni groups in Iraq, and Alissa Rubin reports on the desolate state of Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the Senate readies to debate its version of the appropriations bill passed in the House last week, and the diplomatic crisis continues over the 15 British sailors held by Iran.

After last week’s revelations that the Iraqi government has been holding talks with militant Sunni groups, it now comes to light that the United States has as well. The NYT’s Edward Wong has the scoop with information gleaned in a “farewell interview” with departing US Iraq ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad writes that he had personally participated in talks last year with militant Sunni organizations. Khalilzad flew to Jordan for some of the discussions, which were initiated in early 2006 and involved “self-identified representatives” of the 1920 Brigades and the Islamic Army of Iraq. Wong reports that Khalilzad’s decision to talk to the rebel groups bucked White House policy, and as such is an indication of the latitude that Washington gave to its chief envoy in Iraq. Gen. Casey also participated in the talks, according to Khalilzad, but the extent of his involvement was unclear, other US officials said. Wong reports that Ahmad Chalabi said that the talks died out because of the arduous demands advanced by the groups; which apparently required the reversal of major political changes implemented since the 2003 invasion, including the dissolution of the parliament and the constitution. Wong concludes with an assessment of Khalilzad’s tenure in Iraq since June 2005, as the ambassador heads stateside, having been nominated for the post of UN ambassador. Ryan Crocker, currently US ambassador to Pakistan, will replace Khalilzad in Iraq.

In Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods, “streets are empty, shops are shuttered and neighbors view every foray for life’s essentials as a dangerous journey,” Alissa Rubin writes in the Times. Rubin looks especially at Adhamiyya, which, like other Sunni areas, is caught between Sunni militants, Shi'a militias, the Iraqi regime, and US forces. State services are in especially poor shape, due to government discrimination, the destruction of years of fighting, and the policy of militant Sunni groups to target the government workers sent to make repairs. The economy in the Sunni neighborhoods has also ground to a halt. Jobs have vanished, and shopowners are afraid to open their doors. In these silent neighborhoods, abandoned by the regime and abused by militants, “residents describe an infrastructure so completely broken that they barely limp from one day to the next,” Rubin writes. Well worth a full read.

Four soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in Diyala Province, and another died from a bomb blast while clearing roads in northwest Baghdad, Karin Brulliard and Saad Sarhan report in the Post. . A Sunni mosque was bombed and burned in Haswah, 25 miles south of Baghdad, a day after 11 were killed in an attack on a Shi'a mosque. Two other Sunni mosques were stormed by armed Shi'a militants, but the fighting seemed to subside after US and Iraqi forces arrived, according to a witness.

The US says it has dismantled a major car-bombing ring in Baghdad’s Rusafa area, Rick Jervis reports. US officials link the Rusafa gang to at least 14 car bombings since February, killing 265 people and wounding at least 650. Gen. Caldwell, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson in Iraq said that the group had been responsible for a “horrific amount of civilian casualties.” The general also warned that the gang is likely to regroup. "It doesn't mean we have completely stopped them . . . . These organizations will regenerate themselves. But each time they do, they should be less effective, less capable.”

British sailors

It is still unknown where Iran is holding the 15 sailors seized in disputed waters last week, and no one has had access to them, Mary Jordan reports in the Post. Iran says that the 14 men and one woman were seized after crossing into Iranian waters to search an Indian vessel. A UK FCO official, however, said that if the British craft were in Iranian waters, the Indian ship would also have been, yet the Iranians "didn't do anything to that vessel." Calling the situation “very serious,” Tony Blair demanded the release of the 15 yesterday, speaking in Berlin. Jordan also writes that Iran's state-run IRNA has reported that the UK’s ambassador spoke Sunday with a high-level Iranian Foreign Ministry official, who said that the 15 were "well and sound" and that "legal proceedings" were underway in the case. The meaning of “legal proceedings” is unclear at this point.

Fresh from its weekend slumber, the Monitor runs an article by Scott Peterson reprising the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program and the case of the captured British seamen, and seawoman.

Jeffrey Stinson reviews the Iran crisis for USAT.

Senate bill

Gail Russell Chaddock brings the CSM up to speed on the Senate appropriations bill, to be taken up on the floor today, writing that the bill requires that “US forces begin redeploying out of Iraq four months from the date of the bill's passage and sets a goal of removing combat troops by March 31, 2008 – five months earlier than the House bill calls for. Unlike the House bill, the Senate version is nonbinding.” Republicans have vowed to strip the timetable provisions from the bill. Democrats acknowledge that they don’t have the votes to overcome a threatened veto, but expect that the bills will affect public opinion.

Kathy Kiely repots on the upcoming Senate debate for USAT, noting that the vote is expected Tuesday.

In other coverage:


The electoral wind does not appear to be blowing favorably for several GOP senators up for reelection in 2008, Jeff Zeleny writes. Zeleny points to Sens. Sununu and Coleman, Republicans whose positions on Iraq may not serve them well as they stand before the electorate next year.


"Marines are at war, America is at the mall," says one US general. Gordon Lubold reports that some, notably AEI’s Fred Kagan and the Senate’s Joe Lieberman, are looking for ways to “mobilize” the US public to distribute the costs of the war more widely and to direct greater resources into US military efforts. Lubold also registers skepticism that the public will be willing to further sacrifice for an unpopular war in Iraq. As such, it appears that the strategy on the part of war backers will be to present it as a part of a larger US “war on terror.”


No Iraq coverage in the Journal today, apart from an editorial calling for a harsh response to Iran’s seizing of the British sailors, referring to the capture as “an act of war.” The editors list several possible motivations for the Iranian action, but surprisingly fail to note the most obvious: That Tehran seeks leverage in the debate over the sanctions which may be imposed upon it -- lobbied for by the UK, among others; or, that Iran seeks leverage in securing the release of its nationals held by the US in Iraq. In so doing, WSJ editors are able to present a picture of implacable Iranian belligerence, without mentioning the high-stakes context in which the incident occurs. (See Scott Peterson’s Monitor article, linked above, for background.)


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