BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. and Iraqi officials said on Sunday they were talking to tribal leaders, clerics and some groups linked to the Sunni Arab insurgency as part of attempts to draw more parties into Iraq's political process. The officials said the talks, which have been going on for months, were part of broader efforts to build contacts with all quarters of Iraqi society, and described them as nothing new. "Meetings take place all the time," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington. Rumsfeld compared it to contacts in Afghanistan between the U.S.-backed government there and elements in the Taliban to invite them into government to stop bloodshed. ""And the same thing's going on in Iraq. We see the government of Iraq is sovereign. They're the ones that are reaching out to the people who are not supporting the government," he told NBC's "Meet the Press." "They're not going to try to bring in the people with blood on their hands, for sure, but they're certainly reaching out continuously and we help to facilitate those from time to time." Officials dismissed suggestions the talks were in any way a form of negotiation with insurgents or involved contact with Islamist hard-liners like al Qaeda's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. "U.S. officials and Iraqi officials are looking for the right people in the Sunni community to talk to ensure that the ... community becomes a part of the political process," the U.S. Middle East commander General John Abizaid said. "We're not going to compromise with Zarqawi." CONTACTS WITH REBELS Officials were responding in part to an article in London's Sunday Times newspaper saying that U.S. officials were in talks with Iraqi rebels, who have been waging a two-year campaign against U.S. forces and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. "We've always talked to people, and many of those people have some sort of link to insurgents," said a U.S. official in Baghdad. "It's hard to gauge how much influence anyone has with insurgents," he added, saying it was hard to foresee results. "We are not negotiating with insurgents," he said. A senior Iraqi official who used to work in the Interior Ministry said the talks had involved former Baathists, Saddam Hussein loyalists and others who consider themselves nationalist fighters against a foreign occupation. "The talks are always going on, and some people like to try to say that they are making inroads, but ... I don't think they are going to achieve anything," the official said. He said militants professing to represent groups like Zarqawi's or Ansar al-Sunna, responsible for some of the bloodiest attacks on Americans and Iraqis, were not involved. Ansar al-Sunna denied any of its representatives had, as the Sunday Times said, been involved in any talks. Holy war was its only course, the group said in an Internet statement. Ayham al-Samarai, a minister in the last Iraqi government, has said repeatedly in recent weeks that he has made contact with insurgent groups that are interested in putting down their arms. Samarai could not be reached for comment. The Sunday Times article said Samarai had been involved in organising meetings the paper said took place on June 3 and 10 days later at a house in Balad, north of Baghdad. Iraq's security minister has told Reuters he is in touch through intermediaries with anti-American, nationalist rebels. A U.S. military official in central Iraq, near where the meetings are said to have taken place, said officers frequently met local sheikhs, tribal elders and suspected insurgents. "Officers meet with clerics, tribal elders and others who probably are militants all the time to talk about what can be done to put an end to the fighting," he said. Reuters Jun 26 2005 8:37PM http://nickcooper.com