By Patrick Worsnip
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States is seeking to split the U.N. sanctions list for Taliban and al Qaeda figures into two as part of a bid to induce the Taliban into talks on a peace settlement in Afghanistan, diplomats said on Monday.
The move comes as Washington prepares to start pulling out its 97,000 troops in Afghanistan next month as part of a process to hand over all combat operations against Taliban insurgents to Afghan security forces by 2014.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this month there could be political talks with the Taliban by the end of this year, if the NATO alliance continued to make military advances on the ground, putting pressure on the insurgents.
Diplomats said the United States had put forward two resolutions about the sanctions list to other members of the 15-nation Security Council -- one on splitting the joint list and the other on removing some Taliban names. The sanctions subject those named on the list to travel restrictions and asset freezes.
The council is scheduled to vote on Friday to renew the mandate of an eight-person team of experts that helps a council sanctions committee to maintain the list. Western officials said they hoped the resolutions could be ready by then.
The aim of making separate lists for the Taliban and for al Qaeda is "to send a clear message to the Taliban that it's time to break with al Qaeda and participate in an Afghan political process," one Western diplomat said.
Afghanistan's U.N. Ambassador Zahir Tanin told Reuters in a telephone interview that the move, if it passes the council, "gives us more flexibility. It will help to create a regime of engagement for people to join the peace process."
Tanin said that although it would not mean the end of sanctions against the Taliban, no longer lumping them with al Qaeda would be a "psychological factor" that could weigh with those Taliban considering giving up armed struggle.
COUNCIL MEMBERS CAUTIOUS
The Afghan Taliban, which ruled the country before being driven from power by U.S.-backed forces in 2001, was playing host to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden when he launched the September 11 attacks on the United States. Separating the two movements has long been a Western goal.
The sanctions list currently contains 138 Taliban and 254 al Qaeda names, according to the sanctions committee's website.
Afghanistan has made several bids in the past to have names of Taliban figures it says have abandoned militancy and settled into civilian life removed from the list, but some members of the Security Council have been cautious.
In 2009, in an attempt to meet criticisms as well as legal challenges, the council appointed an ombudsperson to examine complaints of unjustified listing, but the office has limited powers and cannot make decisions or even recommendations.
Tanin said Kabul's latest request was for about 20 people to be delisted.
Western diplomats said the U.S. draft resolutions were under negotiation among council members and declined to speculate on the outcome. One noted that Russia, a veto-holding member with bitter experience of fighting Afghan rebels in the 1980s, "has been skeptical about Taliban reconciliation."
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)