BAGHDAD, Iraq – President Jalal Talabani met with representatives of seven armed groups and is optimistic they may agree to lay down their weapons, his office said Sunday. It was the first time a senior Iraqi official has acknowledged talks with insurgents.
However, Talabani did not identify the groups or specify when and where the meeting took place. The spokesman of one major insurgent group, the Islamic Army in Iraq, said his organization had not taken part in such a meeting.
Last year Talabani offered to talk with insurgents but it was unclear if any took up the offer. U.S. officials have acknowledged meeting Iraqis who had ties to Sunni Arab insurgents but not with representatives of those groups.
On Monday, three roadside bombs exploded in Baghdad on Monday, a national holiday in Iraq, police said.
The first bomb exploded at 8 a.m. in the al-Mashtal district of eastern Baghdad, wounding two Iraqi civilians, said police Maj. Mahir Musa.
The second blast, targeting an Iraqi police convoy, occurred at 9:45 a.m. on a highway in the nearby district of Kamsara, causing no casualties, said police Lt. Bilal Ali Majid.
About five minutes later, a fuel can being used as a roadside bomb exploded about 500 yards behind a U.S. military convoy in Al-Bayaa, a neighborhood of southern Baghdad, causing no injuries or damage, the U.S. military said.
Meanwhile, American diplomats have also cautioned that any such dialogue could take a long time to end the fighting because of divisions within insurgent ranks, which include Islamic extremists such as Al Qaeda in Iraq who show no sign of wanting to end their jihad, or holy war, against the Americans and their Iraqi partners.
It was also unclear whether the seven groups represented a substantial portion of the insurgency. Talabani also did not say whether the insurgents presented their own demands.
"I believe that a deal can be reached with the seven armed groups that visited me," Talabani was quoted as saying. The statement said Talabani made the remarks Saturday during a meeting with fellow Kurds in the Kurdish self-ruled region of northern Iraq.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been anxious to establish a dialogue with insurgents except for Islamic extremists such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and Saddam Hussein loyalists. U.S. officials believe a third faction — mostly nationalistic Sunni Arabs — might be willing to cut a deal if they feel Iraq's new national unity government serves their interests.
According to the statement, Talabani said Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had declared a "genocide against the Iraqi people."
"But there are groups other than the Saddamists and Zarqawists who joined armed operations to fight the occupation, and we are trying to establish a dialogue with them so they will join the political process," he said.
Talabani's security adviser, Lt. Gen. Wafiq al-Samaraei told Al-Arabiya television that the dialogue was aimed at driving a wedge between religious zealots and other insurgents.
The spokesman of the Islamic Army in Iraq, Ibrahim al-Shammari, said his organization did not take part in a meeting but he did not say whether others did.
"Our strategic choice is to resist the occupation by armed force," al-Shammari told Al-Jazeera television. "We met neither the Americans, nor the U.S ambassador, nor with the (Iraqi) government because it is an illegal government with no credibility."
American officials hope the new leadership of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds will manage to calm sectarian tensions and lure disaffected Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency. That would enable the United States and its international partners to begin leaving Iraq.
Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki hopes to name his Cabinet — the final step in organizing the new government — by May 10, Iraqi officials said. Negotiations are under way to fill key posts, including ministers of defense, interior and oil.
In an interview Saturday with National Public Radio, Khalilzad expressed skepticism that al-Maliki would finish by his self-imposed deadline. He has until late May to complete the task.
"It's good to have a deadline, but I think perhaps he's being optimistic," Khalilzad said. "It will be tough for him" because of competing demands of the religiously and ethnically based parties.
Another key step in paving the way for a U.S. drawdown is the training and equipping of the Iraqi army and police to take on a greater security role. U.S. officials are anxious to recruit more Sunni Arabs into the Shiite-dominated ranks to help win the trust of the Sunni community.
The first all-Sunni class finished its basic training Sunday in Habaniyah, 50 miles west of Baghdad. After the graduation ceremony, some of the 978 new soldiers began shouting and arguing when they learned they would have to serve in Ramadi and other dangerous parts of Sunni-dominated Anbar province instead of their hometown of Fallujah.
Some soldiers also complained they had not been paid. Basic training last four weeks for Iraqi troops compared with nine weeks in the U.S. Army.
Also Sunday, the Iraqi Defense Ministry said Iranian forces shelled Kurdish rebel positions near the Iraqi town of Haj Omran, about 180 miles northeast of Baghdad. There were no reports of casualties. Iranian Kurdish rebels maintain bases near Haj Omran.
Meanwhile, at least 12 people, including two children, were killed Sunday in bombings and drive-by shootings across the country, and the bodies of seven others, all males, were found in three separate areas of Baghdad, police said. The bodies were bound and showed signs of torture but was unclear when they died, police said.
The deadliest bombing occurred on a highway south of Baghdad, killing three foreign security contractors and wounding two, including one Briton. Nationalities of the others were unclear.
Two children were killed when insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. position in Ramadai, 70 miles west of Baghdad, American forces said. There were no American casualties.
One policeman was killed and two were wounded when a car containing a corpse exploded south of Baghdad, police said.
In other violence Sunday:
- Four drive-by shootings in Baghdad killed four civilians, including an employee in the Trade Ministry.
- A roadside bomb hit a U.S. military convoy in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, police said. There was no report of U.S. casualties.
- In Ramadi, gunmen attacked three policemen traveling by car with salaries of police in Fallujah, killing one, wounding another, and kidnapping the third with the payroll, police said.
- Gunmen killed a policeman in Samarra, police said.