KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has met a senior delegation from the insurgent group Hezb-i-Islami in Kabul, Karzai's office said Monday, an unprecedented step toward peace that may signal divisions within the insurgency.
The meeting with a militant faction that rivals the Taliban amounts to Karzai's first confirmed direct talks with one of the three main groups fighting his government and Western troops.
Although the talks appeared to be preliminary, the public acknowledgment of the meeting was itself a significant milestone after many months of furtive efforts to reach out.
An eventual peace deal could alter the balance of power on the ground in a decisive year, when Karzai is seeking to woo fighters off the battlefield and Washington mounts a "surge" of extra combat troops before planning to start a pullout in 2011.
Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer, confirmed the delegates had met the president and presented a peace plan.
Reuters tracked down the delegates -- including Ghairat Baheer, son-in-law of the group's fugitive leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- at a Kabul hotel, where they were meeting Afghan parliamentarians. They declined to be interviewed.
"As you can see we are here, but we cannot speak to the press," said Qareeb Rahman Saeed, a senior Hezb-i-Islami official now based in Europe. The delegation's leader, former Prime Minister Qutbuddin Helal, was also present.
Hezb-i-Islami spokesman Haroun Zarghoun said it was the first time the group had sent senior envoys to Kabul for talks. They brought a 15-point peace plan as the basis for negotiations.
"The main point of the plan is the withdrawal of all foreign forces from July this year, and that this is to be completed within six months," Zarghoun said by Pakistan-based mobile phone.
The plan calls for the current government to serve for six months and then stand down for elections to be held next year.
"I felt a very, very positive flexibility and pragmatism in their body language," said Dawood Sultanzoy, one of the parliamentarians who met them. "It is very, very encouraging."
The U.S. State Department cautiously welcomed the news, though it stressed the U.S. position that any groups involved in talks must renounce violence and support for the insurgency, live in accordance with the Afghan constitution, and sever any ties with Al Qaeda or other extremist organizations.
"Any group that is wiling to accede to those conditions can play a role in Afghanistan's future," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told a news briefing.
U.S. President Barack Obama is sending thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan this year for a stepped-up military campaign, while also announcing plans to begin withdrawing in mid-2011. Washington hopes Karzai's outreach program, combined with a decisive year of combat, will prod insurgents to lay down their arms.
Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami has shared some of the aims of the Taliban, but has led a separate insurgency, mainly in the east and pockets of the north of Afghanistan. In recent months, Taliban fighters have pushed into Hezb-i-Islami strongholds.
Afghan officials said scores of Hezb-i-Islami fighters joined the government after clashes with the Taliban two weeks ago.
"Hezb-i-Islami is a very powerful and influential opposition group in Afghanistan and its readiness for peace talks with the government will certainly have an impact," said Mohammad Qasim, a professor at Kabul University and expert on Afghan politics.
"Their delegation meeting with the president on peace talks means there is a rift between the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami."
Karzai has launched a high-profile effort to reach out to insurgents this year, and included a former Hezb-i-Islami member as the economy minister in his new Cabinet in January.
Washington signalled support for the talks. Zarghoun said the delegates might meet U.S. officials, but U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the United States had no plans to meet them.
Lieutenant-Colonel Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for the mainly-U.S. International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said commanders were informed of the visit and were waiting to hear more details about the outcome from the Afghan government.
"ISAF supports any political dialogue aimed at increasing security and providing stable, responsible governance and better opportunities for prosperity among the Afghan people," he said.
Hekmatyar, a veteran anti-Soviet guerrilla commander, civil war faction leader and former prime minister, is known for making and breaking alliances repeatedly over three decades of war.
His followers have fought NATO and Afghan government forces, especially in the east and northeast, and a peace deal could potentially free up thousands of NATO troops for other areas.
The other two main insurgent groups are the Taliban, with strongholds in the south, and a network of followers of insurgent commander Jalaluddin Haqqani based mainly in the southeast. Both of those groups are seen by NATO as bigger threats.
Efforts to make headway in talks with the Taliban themselves have so far been troubled, with some U.S. officials saying they think progress will need to be made on the battlefield first.
The former head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, confirmed last week he had held talks with Taliban representatives over the past year. He said those talks ended in recent weeks after Pakistan arrested the Afghan Taliban's No. 2 leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar.
Baradar's arrest leaves the main Taliban faction in the hands of people believed to share leader Mullah Mohammad Omar's tougher line on talks. An Afghan official who asked not to be identified said Kabul believed Pakistan had arrested Baradar to make sure he did not try to conduct talks independently of Islamabad.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Paul Tait and Alex Richardson