LONDON – Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) acknowledged Sunday that U.S. officials have met with insurgents in Iraq, after a British newspaper reported two such meetings took place recently at a villa north of Baghdad.
Insurgent commanders "apparently came face to face" with four American officials during meetings on June 3 and June 13 at a villa near Balad (search), about 25 miles north of Baghdad, The Sunday Times article reported.
When asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" about the report of the two meetings, Rumsfeld said, "Oh, I would doubt it. I think there have probably been many more than that."
Three militant groups distanced themselves from the reports, denying that they had ever negotiated with U.S. or Iraqi officials to end the insurgency.
In statements on Web sites, Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Ansar al-Sunnah Army said their fight was not only about ending the occupation in Iraq, but about upholding their religion.
Rumsfeld insisted the talks did not involve negotiations with Iraq's most-wanted terrorist, Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) who heads Al Qaeda in Iraq, but were rather facilitating efforts by the Shiite-led government to reach out to minority Sunni Arabs, who are believed to be the driving force behind the insurgency.
"We see the government of Iraq is sovereign. They're the ones that are reaching out to the people who are not supporting the government," Rumsfeld said from Washington.
Ansar al-Sunnah Army said that even when the Americans leave, their associates in the Iraqi government would remain in Iraq and would be targeted.
The top U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf, Gen. John Abizaid, said American officers and diplomats "have been talking with a broad range of people from the Sunni Arab community, some of whom obviously have some links to the insurgency."
"The Sunnis need to be part of the political future," Abizaid, also in Washington, told CBS' "Face the Nation." "This doesn't mean that we're talking to people like Zarqawi or people that are linked up with his organization."
The Sunday Times report, which quoted unidentified Iraqis whose groups were purportedly involved in the meetings, said the insurgents at the first meeting included the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, which claimed responsibility for bombings in Iraq and a Christmas attack that killed 22 people in the dining hall of a U.S. base at Mosul.
But in its Internet statement, the group said that it hadn't meet with any "crusader or renegade" and said that jihad, "holy war," was the only way to retrieve the "grace and dignity" of the Muslim nation.
Two other groups mentioned were Mohammed's Army and the Islamic Army in Iraq, which in August reportedly killed the Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, the newspaper said. The Islamic Army in Iraq denied any meeting with U.S. officials, saying on a Web site that "lies" were spread to cause division and sedition among the fighters.
According to the Sunday Times, one American at the talks introduced himself as a Pentagon representative and declared himself ready to "find ways of stopping the bloodshed on both sides and to listen to demands and grievances," the Times said.
The official indicated that the results of the talks would be relayed to his superiors in Washington, the newspaper said.
Rumsfeld did not provide details about any meetings, saying the insurgency had many layers, ranging from disaffected Sunni members of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime to foreign-born terrorists.
"There's no one negotiating with Zarqawi or the people that are out chopping people's heads off," he said.
He also played down the significance of the report.
"I would not make a big deal out of it. Meetings go on frequently with people," Rumsfeld told "FOX News Sunday."
The U.S. officials tried to gather information about the structure, leadership and operations of the insurgent groups, which irritated some members, who had been told the talks would consider their main demand — a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the newspaper said.
A senior U.S. official said earlier this month that American authorities have negotiated with key Sunni leaders, who are in turn talking with insurgents and trying to persuade them to lay down their arms. The official, who did not give his name so as not to undercut the new government's authority, did not name the Sunni leaders.
U.S. and Iraqi officials also are considering amnesty for their enemies as they look for ways to end the country's rampant insurgency and isolate extremists wanting to start a civil war.