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Meanwhile, some Americans showed openness to a dialogue. In meetings with Sunni tribal leaders, Lieut. Colonel Rick Welch, the senior special-operations civil-military affairs adviser to the commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad, put word out that the military was willing to talk to hard-liners about their grievances and that, as Welch says, "the door is not closed, except for some very top regime guys." Welch, a reservist and prosecutor from Morgan County, Ohio, told TIME, "I don't meet all the insurgent leaders, but I've met some of them." Although not an authorized negotiator, Welch has become a back channel in the nascent U.S. dialogue with the insurgents. Insurgent negotiators confirm to TIME that they have met with Welch.
What do the insurgents want? Top insurgent field commanders and negotiators informed TIME that the rebels have told diplomats and military officers that they support a secular democracy in Iraq but resent the prospect of a government run by exiles who fled to Iran and the West during Saddam's regime. The insurgents also seek a guaranteed timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, a demand the U.S. refuses. But there are some hints of compromise: insurgent negotiators have told their U.S. counterparts they would accept a U.N. peacekeeping force as the U.S. troop presence recedes. Insurgent representative Abu Mohammed says the nationalists would even tolerate U.S. bases on Iraqi soil. "We don't mind if the invader becomes a guest," he says, suggesting a situation akin to the U.S. military presence in Germany and Japan.
As promising as such proffers might sound, it's far too early for optimism. The new U.S. policy of engagement is aimed at driving a wedge between nationalist insurgents and the jihadists. But al-Zarqawi and his allies have silenced nationalists by threatening to kill them if they negotiate. The Western observer close to the discussions says, "Al-Zarqawi keeps pulling the process away from 'fight and negotiate' to 'pure mayhem.'"
The engagement strategy faces another obstacle: the new Iraqi government. Leaders of the victorious political parties say they have no interest in continuing dialogue with the insurgents. "The voters gave us a mandate to attack these insurgents, not negotiate with them," says Humam Bakr Hammoudi, a political strategist for the dominant SCIRI party. U.S. negotiators say they believe the new government will eventually realize that only a political settlement will subdue the insurgency--which may soon direct its wrath at the new Iraqi rulers if it believes its interests are being ignored. While some in the Bush Administration might find the idea of backing an accord with archenemy Baathists distasteful, the Western observer says, "I think you've got a pretty flexible [U.S.] government." Now it's up to the others to follow. --With reporting by Aparisim Ghosh/Baghdad and Douglas Waller/ Washington