American officials held secret talks with leaders of the Iraqi insurgency last week after admitting that their two-month clampdown on violence in Baghdad had failed.
Few details of the discussions in the Jordanian capital Amman have emerged but an Iraqi source close to the negotiations said the participants had met for at least two days.
They included members of the Islamic Army in Iraq, one of the main Sunni militias behind the insurgency, and American government representatives. The talks were described as “feeler” discussions. The US officials were exploring ways of persuading the Sunni groups to stop attacks on allied forces and to end a cycle of increasingly bloody sectarian clashes with members of the majority Shi’ite groups.
According to the source, the key demand of the Islamic Army was the release of American-held prisoners in allied jails.
The Islamic Army has been held responsible for the killing of Enzo Baldoni, an Italian journalist kidnapped in Baghdad in August 2004, and the execution of three Macedonian engineers working for the American army two months later.
The talks with Sunni insurgents, a further sign that US forces in Iraq are rethinking their tactics, came amid parallel efforts to persuade Shi’ite militias to quell their own violence.
Nouri Al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister and a former Shi’ite political activist, held talks with Moqtadr al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric who leads the Mahdi Army and controls 30 of the 275 seats in the Iraqi parliament. Maliki is believed to have urged him to control his men.
But there were further clashes yesterday when gunmen loyal to Sadr fought with police near Baghdad, a day after hundreds of his militiamen attacked police stations and Iraqi forces in the south of the country.
The escalation of Shi’ite infighting in Amara, where up to 300 gunmen clashed with police, left at least 31 people dead. It is believed last week’s violence was sparked by the arrest of the brother of the local leader of the Mahdi Army.
About 700 Iraqi troops were sent on Friday to restore order, but the violence highlighted the weakness of the Maliki government in keeping order as rival Shi’ite groups jostle for power. Last night it appeared that the Iraqi troops had succeeded in stopping the fighting and they were manning checkpoints around the city.
Only two months ago British troops handed Amara to Iraqi control stating that the security situation there was “relatively quiet”. Yesterday the troops, based in Basra, were on standby, ready to go back in if the Iraqi army loses control.