BAGHDAD, Iraq – Insurgents are demanding the withdrawal of all U.S. and British forces from Iraq within two years as a condition for joining reconciliation talks, a senior Iraqi government official said Wednesday.
In Moscow, meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin ordered the special services to hunt down and "destroy" the killers of four Russian Embassy workers in Iraq, the Kremlin said.
A top security official also said Iraqi forces captured a key Al Qaeda suspect wanted in the bombing of a Shiite shrine, but the mastermind of the attack that brought the country to the brink of civil war was still at large.
Iraqi government officials involved with the contacts with insurgents told The Associated Press that several militant groups sent delegates from their regions and tribes to speak on their behalf.
One of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of demands for secrecy in the talks, said the insurgents have so far rejected face-to-face talks, saying they fear being targeted by Shiite militias, Iraqi security forces and the Americans.
The official said the insurgents have demanded a two-year "timetable for withdrawal" in return for joining Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bid for national reconciliation.
The insurgents also said a condition for any future direct talks would be the presence of observers from the Arab League, Saudi Arabia and Iraq's influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars.
Al-Maliki said any amnesty offered under his 24-point reconciliation plan that was unveiled Sunday would not include militants who killed American forces or Iraqis.
"Any amnesty for insurgents will exclude fighters who killed Iraqis or soldiers of the multinational forces because these troops came to Iraq according to international agreements and they are contributing in making the political process successful," he said.
"Those who commit such crimes will stand trial because the aim of killing Iraqis or foreign soldiers is to frustrate democracy and the political process," al-Maliki said.
Al-Maliki has not provided more specifics about the amnesty plan because it's such a sensitive issue in the United States. While he said insurgents who had killed U.S. forces or Iraqis would be excluded, he did not clarify how such a determination would be made because virtually all insurgents who would be affected are still at large.
He also has sought a pardon for detained Iraqis who have not been convicted of killings or terrorist acts.
Al-Maliki also said no timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops would be imposed until Iraqi forces are ready to take over security. "The timing depends on the capabilities of these (Iraqi) forces," he said.
His speech came as the government struggled to contain rampant ethnic and sectarian violence.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad discussed Iraq with Saudi King Abdullah and other top officials Tuesday in Jeddah, the U.S. Embassy said. Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest shrines, has good relations and some influence among Iraq's Sunni Arabs, which make up the core of the insurgency.
Key Iraqi lawmakers have said that seven insurgent groups — not including al-Qaida or Islamic terror groups but mostly made up of former members or backers of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime — had offered the government a conditional truce.
But one of those purported groups, the Mohammed Army, denied such contacts had been made.
"We heard from the media that Mohammed Army brigades in Abu Ghraib, Fallujah and Ramadi were among those negotiated with the Iraqi government ... and that did not happen," according to a statement dated Monday and e-mailed to journalists in Fallujah.
The Mohammed Army is made up of former members of Saddam's Baath Party, members of his elite Republican Guards and former military commanders. It, too, has focused attacks on the U.S. military and played a role in the November 2004 battle for Fallujah.
National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said a Tunisian identified as Yousri Fakher Mohammed Ali — and also known as Abu Qudama — was captured after being seriously wounded in a clash with security forces north of Baghdad a few days ago in which 15 other foreign fighters were killed.
Al-Rubaie said Abu Qudama was part of a gang that carried out the Feb. 22 attack on the Shiite Golden Dome shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. The suspect entered Iraq in November 2003 and joined Al Qaeda in June 2004, al-Rubaie said.
He also identified the fugitive ringleader in the operation as an Iraqi named Haitham Sabah Shaker Mohammed al-Badri, an Al Qaeda operative. He said the gang, which included two other Iraqis, four Saudis and Abu Qudama, planted bombs in the 1,200-year-old Askariya mosque that exploded and obliterated its glistening golden dome.
A spasm of sectarian killing and revenge attacks on Sunni and Shiite mosques after the bombing took Iraq to the brink of civil war. Since then, at least 3,382 civilians were killed, more than 20,000 families were displaced, and dozens of Sunni and Shiite mosques were damaged or destroyed.
While acknowledging al-Badri was still at large, al-Rubaie did not say if other members of the gang had been captured.
Al-Rubaie said Abu Qudama was involved in the shooting death of an Al-Arabiya TV correspondent and two of her colleagues after the shrine bombing. Abu Qudama was captured in Udaim, a village about 70 miles north of Baghdad, he said.
"Abu Qudama confessed that he killed hundreds of Iraqis," al-Rubaie said, without giving details.
The statement from the Kremlin press service said Putin "has ordered the special forces to take all necessary measures to find and destroy the criminals" responsible for the deaths of the Russians, who were abducted in early June.
It did not specify what special forces might be involved. Agents of the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Federal Security Service — the main successor to the Soviet KGB — could be considered special forces.
Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev later said that special forces would do everything possible to ensure that the killers "do not escape from responsibility," the Interfax news agency reported.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Krivtsov declined to say whether any Russian special forces were in Iraq, but noted that there are "people responsible for security at the embassy" in Baghdad. Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analysts, told The Associated Press, "We don't have real special forces in Iraq."
Among the sporadic violence Wednesday in Iraq, according to police:
— A suicide car bomber blew up himself near a Sunni mosque in a market south of the northeastern city of Baqouba, killing one person and wounding 12.
— A roadside bomb targeting a U.S. convoy exploded in western Baghdad, killing an Iraqi civilian and wounding another.
— Gunmen killed Riyadh Abdul-Majid Zuaini, the customs director for central Baghdad, and his driver in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Amariyah.
— Clashes between gunmen and police also broke out in the northern city of Mosul, leaving a policeman wounded. One militant was arrested.