BAGHDAD U.S. and Iraqi officials have held contacts with Sunni Arab insurgent groups to build an alliance against al Qaeda, the outgoing U.S. ambassador said on Monday, in an opening to what he called "more patriotic" groups.
Zalmay Khalilzad also said he was cautiously optimistic that "success is possible" in Iraq, but urged leaders to act fast if they were to maintain Washington's support amid growing pressure in the United States for a timetable to withdraw troops.
"Coalition commanders have been able to engage some insurgents to explore ways to collaborate in fighting the terrorists," Khalilzad told his final news conference in Baghdad.
"These insurgents are also in touch with the government seeking reconciliation and cooperation in the fight against the al Qaeda terrorists," he said before leaving Baghdad on Monday.
Khalilzad, an advocate of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, said U.S. and Iraqi officials had met representatives of insurgent groups several times for talks.
He said talks "have taken place and they are continuing to take place," but declined to give specifics because "people's lives are at stake".
Washington has repeatedly pressed the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reach out to disaffected minority Sunnis, wary of the newly empowered Shi'ite majority.
While Maliki has talked of the importance of national reconciliation, there has been little action on the ground.
CAUSES FOR OPTIMISM
Khalilzad said reasons for optimism included a fall in violence in Baghdad by 25 percent since a crackdown began in February, the improved performance of Iraq's security forces, and agreement on a new law to share out Iraq's oil equitably.
"These are positive indicators. But for success to be inevitable, more needs to be done," he said.
"We are an impatient people and I constantly signaled to the Iraqi leaders that the patience of the American people is running out," he added.
He said the government must demobilise militias, schedule provincial elections, amend the constitution to address Sunni concerns and reach agreement to "allow insurgents to lay down arms and join the political process".
A government source said on Monday a draft of amendments to a law banning former Baath party members from public sector jobs, which has been a source of deep resentment to Sunni Arabs, was finalised and ready to go to parliament.
Iraq has seen a surge in sectarian bloodshed during Khalilzad's 21 months as envoy, eclipsing the insurgency against U.S. forces and the Shi'ite-led government, and pitching the country toward all-out civil war.
As Khalilzad spoke, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi security forces battled gunmen in Iskandariya southwest of Baghdad, the scene of tit-for-tat attacks on Sunni Muslim and Shi'ite mosques in the past three days. Police said a curfew had been imposed.
At the news conference, Khalilzad was pressed on whether the U.S. contacts with the insurgent groups did not violate Washington's policy of not talking to terrorists.
"I did not say we've talked to terrorists," he said, drawing a distinction between terrorists and "reconcilable" insurgents.
Al Qaeda's adherence to a hardline form of Sunni Islam and indiscriminate killings have brought it into conflict with some Sunni tribes, particularly in western Anbar province.
Former Baathists, loyal to Saddam Hussein, form the bulk of the Sunni Arab insurgency. The Islamic Army in Iraq is believed to be the largest group of former Baathists and military officers fighting Iraqi and U.S. forces.
"One of the main challenges is how to separate more and more groups away from al Qaeda," Khalilzad said. "There's a real struggle going on in the Sunni Arab part of Iraq between al Qaeda and the other more patriotic groups."
Washington still views al Qaeda as one of the biggest threats to security in Iraq, although most of the killing now is attributed to sectarian violence between Shi'ites and Sunnis.
Despite hundreds of its members being killed or captured, the al Qaeda-led Islamic State in Iraq group is still able to launch attacks and is responsible for some of the worst bombs.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Waleed Ibrahim)