BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq criticised the United States on Friday for holding talks with Iraqis that Baghdad describes as terrorists, delivering a sharp rebuke to Washington just as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visits the U.S. capital.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said U.S. officials, as part of efforts to end the insurgency in Iraq, had met with envoys from armed groups without notifying Iraqi authorities.
"There must be Iraqi government approval. Any action from any side, including the United States, without Iraqi government approval is not accepted," Dabbagh said, adding that Iraq rejected negotiations with "terrorists" and "killers".
He said Iraq was not committed to any deals U.S. officials had made with such opposition groups.
"Talks can only be with groups who renounce violence, disarm, and accept the current political process in Iraq."
In a TV interview last week, Ali al-Jubouri, an Iraqi identified as head of the Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance, said his Sunni Muslim group had held two rounds of talks with U.S. officials, one in March and one in May.
He said the United States had signed a deal recognising his group, but negotiations had since broken down. The group's demands included a formal U.S. apology for the 2003 invasion, compensation and the release of all Iraqi prisoners.
Iraq's Shi'ite-led government believes the meetings were held in the presence of a Turkish official, and has asked for an explanation from Baghdad's U.S. and Turkish embassies.
"It was a shock. The (group) represents the remnants of the Baath party, supporters of the past regime and groups that adopt violence and terror as a means for change," Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told al-Hurra television on Thursday, referring to the party of Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein.
Some Iraqi politicians have criticised Maliki, a one-time leader of the Shi'ite opposition to Saddam, for sidelining Sunnis politically under the guise of being tough on terrorism.
Saleh al-Mutlaq, a senior Sunni Muslim lawmaker, defended such negotiations. "I believe there will be no successful political process without the inclusion of those groups."
Speaking in Washington, Maliki made comments that appeared to cast doubt on whether U.S. officials had met with Jubouri at all, saying there was "confusion" about the issue.
"President Obama is keen not to make any contact with those who killed U.S. soldiers, Iraqi soldiers or civilians. Therefore it is completely unlikely the U.S. administration ... held talks with those killers," he said at a Washington think tank.
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad declined to comment and the Turkish embassy could not be reached.
The issue comes at an awkward time for Maliki and the United States. With national elections due in January, Maliki has been keen to promote himself as a nationalist who has won Iraqi's sovereignty back after years of U.S. occupation.
Washington wants to hand Iraqis greater control of security, and last month withdrew its combat troops from urban centres. At the same time, some U.S. officials feel snubbed by the nationalist discourse after a six-year-long presence in Iraq.
One aim of Maliki's latest trip to Washington was to move the U.S.-Iraqi relationship away from its military focus and to assert Iraq's independence, Iraqi officials said.
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Suadad al-Salhy and Khalid al-Ansary)
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