Iraq said Friday it was investigating reports that U.S. delegates and Sunni insurgents held reconciliation talks in Turkey this year, alleging the meetings violated Iraqi sovereignty and showed tolerance for terrorists.
The State Department acknowledged that unspecified meetings took place, but said Iraq knew about them at the time.
The matter raises sensitive questions about Iraqis' newfound authority as the United States hands over responsibility to Iraqi forces, which have taken charge of security in cities since June 30. The revelations came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ended a visit to the United States after meeting President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
Although the meetings in Turkey are said to have occurred months ago, news reports about an agreement supposedly signed by the American and insurgent sides have angered Iraqis who are struggling to assert their independence after years of conflict.
A man identified as the secretary-general of the Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance told Al-Jazeera TV last week that his group held talks with U.S. officials in March and in May. He said the two sides signed a "protocol to organize the negotiation process and a document that included U.S. recognition of the Iraqi resistance."
The man, Ali al-Jubouri, said the group's other demands included a formal U.S. apology for the 2003 invasion and the release of all Iraqi prisoners, but that the talks had since broken down.
U.S. convinced Sunnis to fight al-Qaida
U.S. diplomatic and military officials have negotiated with Sunni insurgents in the past, and scored a notable success by persuading Sunni tribal leaders, whose followers included anti-American fighters, to turn against al-Qaida in Iraq in what was considered a key factor in reducing violence in 2007.
Despite the drop in insurgent attacks and sectarian bloodshed, political reconciliation among Iraq's factions remains difficult. Iraq's Shiite-led government, whose supporters suffered under the Sunni-dominated rule of Saddam Hussein, is deeply skeptical of the possibility of an accord with Sunni insurgents, some of whom might have links to Saddam's old Baath party.
"Nobody can make decisions on behalf of Iraq, which has a legitimate government," said Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the security and defense committee in the Iraqi parliament. "We want to know if these armed groups are included in the national reconciliation project and whether their hands have been stained in Iraqi blood."
In an interview with the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra network, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he received confirmation of a meeting involving U.S., insurgent and Turkish representatives in Istanbul in March.
Zebari said it was "shocking" and "amazing" that U.S. and Turkish officials met "the supporters of the former regime, groups that adopt violence and terrorism as a way to change the situation, and the networks that believe in killing, bombing and targeting innocents."
He said of the meetings: "They should not take place because they do not serve stability."
State Department: We won't undercut Iraq
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Friday that U.S. officials have met a wide range of Iraqi contacts to promote reconciliation and foster national unity.
"The meetings in question occurred months ago and with the knowledge of officials within the Iraqi government," Wood said. "Having spent the past six years helping Iraq build a representative and effective democratic government, the last thing we would do is take any action intended to undercut it."
On Thursday, the Iraqi Cabinet asked the U.S. and Turkish embassies for clarification of what it described as interference in Iraq's internal affairs. It said it had learned about a protocol for negotiations between representatives of the United States and the Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance, and that a Turkish government representative was a signatory to the agreement.
Al-Bayati, the lawmaker, said Iraqi officials had not seen the purported protocol but that the United States and Turkey must explain.
A Turkish government official confirmed that Iraqi Sunni groups had met in Istanbul, but he did not provide further details. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
U.S. officials worked for years to encourage dialogue with Iraqi groups — including major Sunni insurgent groups, except al-Qaida in Iraq.
One set of contacts began in late 2005 after then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad confronted the Shiite leadership over alleged torture of Sunni prisoners. Khalilzad met with Sunni sheiks in Anbar province and persuaded some of them to cooperate with the government.
Khalilzad said in April 2006 that U.S. officials had met with people linked to the Sunni insurgency and that those contacts were responsible for a brief but sharp drop in U.S. deaths.