BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq criticized the United States on Friday for holding talks with Iraqis that Baghdad describes as terrorists, delivering a rebuke to Washington during a visit by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to 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.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seeking to lower tensions over the dispute, said after meeting Maliki in Washington that she was only recently told of the talks and promised to keep Iraq's government "fully informed" in the future.
"We want to be sure that we have a very close working relationship and a very clean line of communication and that's what we will do going forward," she said at a joint news conference with Maliki.
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 recognizing 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.
Asked about such a deal, Clinton said no U.S. officials had been authorized to sign anything. She declined further comment.
For his part, Maliki also sought to play down the controversy, but stressed the need for "constant dialogue."
"I am quite satisfied in terms of what I have heard on this issue and I have been given a commitment that the (Obama) administration will not negotiate or reach agreements with those who killed American soldiers, Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi people," said Maliki through an interpreter.
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 criticized 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."
The Turkish embassy could not be reached for comment on the meetings.
The controversy 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 centers. 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 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 in Iraq and Sue Pleming in Washington)
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