The offer of a ceasefire by one of the main Sunni insurgent groups will be received with interest in Washington. But there is scant chance it will be accepted by the Bush administration as a serious basis for a negotiated exit from Iraq - or that such talks are even practical amid the current chaos in the country.
Feelers between the two sides are not new. Over the past two years, as the depth and scope of the insurgency grew, reports surfaced of back-channel contacts between US military representatives and the insurgents - including the "1920 Revolution Brigade", a wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement that is behind the latest offer.
Details of the talks, never officially confirmed by the US, were sketchy. But insurgent leaders were said to have been willing to accept a United Nations peacekeeping force, as the US forces pulled out. Then as now, however, Washington refused to accept anything resembling a fixed timetable for a pull-out.
The goal of the US in these talks was to detach home-grown insurgents - the "deadenders" from the fallen regime of Saddam Hussein, as the former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld once called them - from the foreign fighters who had joined the war against the occupiers, above all al-Qa'ida. But while Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qa'ida commander in Iraq, was killed by the US in June 2006, insurgent attacks on US troops have continued and, if anything, become more sophisticated.
The new offer has some points acceptable to the US, notably the involvement of the UN and the Arab League in any deal. But the US would be required to sit down publicly with "terrorists". Implicitly, too, it would be siding against the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, to which the Bush administration is still committed.
The demands for the current Baghdad government to be disbanded, and past elections to be nullified, would moreover repudiate the only concrete achievements the Bush White House can claim in its efforts to bring "democracy" to Iraq.
But the main problem is that the offer has been overtaken by events. The war may be more unpopular than ever here (two thirds of Americans now want the troops home). But the problem is less fighting against US and coalition troops than the country's slide into a civil war in which the latter are virtual bystanders.
The latest proposal talks of an American withdrawal "that would leave our people to live in peace". But how that would happen, as Sunni radicals and suicide bombers continue to carry out attacks on Shia, seemingly with the express purpose of provoking civil conflict, is unclear.
As December's report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, and the bleak assessment of the latest National Intelligence Estimate both made clear, an early US departure would only lead to an increase in sectarian violence. The insurgency is only one facet of a war that pits Sunnis against Shia and some Shia factions against each other.Reuse content