News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqBritish 'hold talks with Sunni rebel leaders'

British ‘hold talks with Sunni rebel leaders’

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Daily Telegraph: British military officers have held secret talks with leaders of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, according to the country’s president. The Daily Telegraph

By Damien McElroy

British military officers have held secret talks with leaders of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, according to the country’s president.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, President Jalal Talabani said British officers played a key role in talks between his government and insurgent groups over reducing the sectarian violence that has torn the country apart.

The parties were now on the verge of an historic breakthrough after the negotiations showed “good signals” of success, he said.

Speaking during a visit to London, Mr Talabani said the meetings had been with groups outside Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’eda network. “There are resistance movements that are now meeting with the prime minister, with me, with British military officers and the ambassador for reconciliation talks.”

Mr Talabani, 74, is a former Kurdish guerrilla leader who is the figurehead of the Shia-led government.

He said the Sunni groups fighting the Iraqi state now regarded Iran to be a greater threat than Western forces, as Teheran’s influence continued to increase.

“There is a big change in the mentality of the Sunni Arab,” he said.

“They are now considering Iran is the danger and no longer considering America the danger.”

He acknowledged that Iran had a hand in attacks against British and American forces in Iraq.

He also drew a direct link between Iran’s internal battles against dissent and the attacks by Iranian-backed militias in the Shia-dominated south that have killed dozens of Britons.

“They haven’t declared war against the multi-national forces but sometimes there are attacks,” he said. “When there are some attacks inside [in Iran”> they think it is British-backed activities, so they do some limited things in Basra.”

Mr Talabani, who is routinely addressed by his entourage as Uncle Jalal, said Tony Blair was an architect of Iraq’s liberation. He fears that the departure of the Prime Minister might bring forward a British withdrawal.

When Mr Talabani met Mr Blair on Friday, he reminded him that as a Kurdish student he had protested against the British military presence in Iraq in the 1950s. “I told him this is the first time that British troops are welcome in Iraq. They should stay.”

While he was confident that Iraq’s security forces were gaining ground against insurgents, Mr Talabani said British and American forces must not contemplate withdrawal before the end of next year.

“We need to have a coalition presence this year and next year. Then we can say goodbye, dear friends.”

To Mr Talabani, the British deployment is a model for all foreign forces in Iraq. In particular, he pointed to a rarely discussed achievement.

“The British did a very big job for us in securing and guaranteeing the oil for the Iraq people,” he said.

In running his country, Mr Talabani has pushed his health to breaking point and recently received treatment for a heart condition in a Jordanian hospital. The smell of cigar smoke that would once have wafted around the president was notably absent during the interview.

He is optimistic that the worst sectarian violence will begin to ease within months. But the bloodshed will continue. “I am sure by the end of the summer the city will be cleansed of terrorists but if you mean by security the end of car bombs, I don’t think it is possible,” he said.

Mr Talabani said the Shia-dominated government was under intense pressure to reach out to its internal opponents, especially the Sunni Muslim clans that lost power and influence with the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Reconciliation holds the key to breaking the foothold of al-Qa’eda-linked extremists, who have bombarded the Iraqi capital with devastating car bombs in recent weeks.

“When only the terrorist group of al-Qa’eda remains, it will be easy to secure Iraq by eradicating it,” he said.

Solidifying emerging Sunni engagement means opening up the Baghdad government to politicians once seen as beyond the pale.

“The biggest step forward would be to have the full participation of all the main groups in Iraq,” he said.

“We need national unity. We must convince the Sunni Arabs they are a real partner.

“If they are not, they will not fight terrorism. When they are, they will fight.”

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