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Iraq’s Anbar Province Faces Political, Military Changes

June 1, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Just months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Anbar province became a hotbed of Sunni insurgent activity. The mostly Sunni province in western Iraq, Anbar accounts for 30 percent of Iraq’s land mass. It borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The hotspot towns of Ramadi, Haditha and Fallujah are all in Anbar, as is much of the area known as the Sunni triangle. It’s not densely populated, home to just 1.25 million Iraqis. But outside of Baghdad, the area has posed the greatest challenges to U.S. forces in Iraq, especially after al-Qaida in Iraq began using the province as a staging area.

Since the war began, nearly 1,300 Americans have died in Anbar, more than in any other province. In Fallujah in March 2004, four American contractors were ambushed, killed and burned. Local Iraqis cheered as their bodies were hung from a bridge.

U.S. forces laid siege to the city twice to root out both Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida operatives who had effectively taken over the town. Efforts to stabilize and rebuild the city continue.

U.S. forces have fought numerous and intense battles in Ramadi, but in past weeks, President Bush and top military commanders in Iraq have said the tide is turning in Anbar and have touted it as a success.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Our new strategy is designed to take advantage of new opportunities to partner with local tribes to go after al-Qaida in places like Anbar, which has been the home base of al-Qaida in Iraq.

LT. GEN. RAY ODIERNO, U.S. Army: In May, the attacks in Anbar in 2006 totaled 811. In 2007, they were just barely over 400. In Ramadi in 2006, there were 254 attacks in the city of Ramadi; in 2007, there have been 30.

RAY SUAREZ: And as part of the administration’s surge strategy in Iraq, some 5,000 additional U.S. troops are being sent to Anbar province.

A better situation in Anbar

David Wood
The Baltimore Sun
About six months ago, the tribal sheikhs... got together and they decided, "OK, we don't like the Americans, but what we really don't like are these foreign insurgents who are fighting here under the rubric of al-Qaida in Iraq."

RAY SUAREZ: For an on-the-ground assessment of the situation in Iraq's largest province, we're joined by two men who visited there last month. David Wood is the national security correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, and former Marine Captain Bing West, he's now a correspondent for the Atlantic magazine and has written two books about the war.

David Wood, let's start with you. Contrast the conditions day-to-day in Anbar now with what you saw in your last reporting trip late last year.

DAVID WOOD, National Security Correspondent, Baltimore Sun: Ray, the difference was, this time I could walk around, albeit with body armor and a helmet. But when I was there in December, I was always in a very heavily armored vehicle, which drove quite fast and didn't stop.

This time, I walked around. I spent an entire day with one of the tribal sheikhs, had lunch at his mother's house, felt totally at home.

RAY SUAREZ: Bing West, did you see the same change?

BING WEST, Correspondent, The Atlantic Magazine: Yes, picking up on what David said, the big difference now is that you have much more a political outreach on the part of the tribes than I've seen in the last four years. In fact, last night, when you were interviewing Ambassador Neumann about Afghanistan, I thought he could have used the words "Anbar," because the politics are now coming to the fore in a way that no one expected a year ago.

RAY SUAREZ: So, David Wood, when he says politics, what's going on, on the ground in Anbar, that explains this change that the two of you have seen?

DAVID WOOD: Ray, what happened -- about six months ago, the tribal sheikhs, the traditional political leaders of Anbar province, got together and they decided, "OK, we don't like the Americans, but what we really don't like are these foreign insurgents who are fighting here under the rubric of al-Qaida in Iraq."

And so basically they said to the Marines in Iraq, "Look, we don't like you guys, but we hate them even worse. So we're going to join you to fight against them, and then we'll come after you guys." And the Marines were like, "We're fine with that, because as soon as we get rid of the insurgents, we're out of here."

Increase in U.S. forces

Bing West
The Atlantic
The steel rods in this concrete are still those Marine rifle companies, and so the challenge is, how do you bring in these tribal members, and cause them to work with the Iraqi army, and then extract the Americans? And that's a delicate process.

RAY SUAREZ: So they're really throwing in their lot with U.S. forces? It's not just that they have the same enemy, but they have made the conscious decision to fight alongside or in cooperation with U.S. forces?

DAVID WOOD: In the part of Anbar where I spent some time a couple of weeks ago, they have recruited hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of their own kids to serve in the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police in that region. And the United States pays for them to go down to Jordan to get trained, and they come back, and they're serving on the streets. So that's sort of putting their money where their mouth is.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, General Odierno said yesterday 12,000 Anbar residents have joined the Iraqi security forces in the first five months of this year compared with 1,000 in all of 2006. Bing West, what caused this change? Why this shift to cooperating with the Americans instead of trying to kick them out?

BING WEST: Al-Qaida basically is a religious-based cult, and they had killed too many members of the Sunni tribes. And finally, the Sunni tribes listened to the Marines, because the Marines for several years have been saying, "Smarten up. One day, we're gone, and al-Qaida is going to be in charge if you don't stand up for yourselves." And finally the message kicked in.

But we have to be careful here. Al-Qaida is still absolutely ruthless. And I think, in a straight up fight, they take the tribes. The steel rods in this concrete are still those Marine rifle companies, and so the challenge is, how do you bring in these tribal members, and cause them to work with the Iraqi army, and then extract the Americans? And that's a delicate process.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you talked earlier about politics. Is there also a political dimension to this for U.S. commanders who have sometimes, over the last four years, had a tough time figuring out who's really their friend and who's not?

BING WEST: I'll say. Ray, you really touched on something when you said American commanders. I think it's time we had somebody like Ambassador Neumann, who was on your show last night in Afghanistan, out in Anbar. When you're dealing with the local tribal politics, you're dealing with the sheikhs, you're dealing with the Iraqi army, you're dealing with the Baghdad politicians, that's a role for trained diplomats. And I think it's time that the State Department got into this and sent out a very seasoned ambassador to try to make sense out of all the politics.

RAY SUAREZ: David Wood, is this the battle the U.S. military eventually wanted to see, Iraqis fighting al-Qaida?

DAVID WOOD: No, I don't think it's the battle they want to see at all. I think what they want to see is what they've created there now, which is a space, a moment of stability. And it's critical, as Bing was saying, that we take advantage of this moment and help the Iraqis find a stake in their own future.

And what I found there was raised questions about whether the United States is really putting its full resources into building that peace in this fragile moment.

Reconstruction in Anbar

David Wood
The Baltimore Sun
I don't think they need big buildings or massive construction projects. I think what they need from the United States is encouragement, and a little bit of advice and help, and a little bit of money.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, develop that idea a little bit more, because you've written that you perceive that Anbar was at a tipping point. What do you see needed to push it the rest of the way?

DAVID WOOD: I don't think it needs a lot. I think they need some encouragement. There are a lot of Iraqis who are working to, you know, fix those sewer and water systems. They want to do things like starting women centers, fishing cooperatives, and they've got a whole lot of plans.

I don't think they need big buildings or massive construction projects. I think what they need from the United States is encouragement, and a little bit of advice and help, and a little bit of money.

RAY SUAREZ: Bing West, what about that element of the Anbar project, getting reconstruction teams in, improving daily life? One of the early hallmarks of the Anbar struggle was the insurgents' skill at proving to local people that having Americans around just wasn't going to do them any good.

BING WEST: And, instead, al-Qaida turned around and began to decapitate them. David's dead on when he says, it's time that the Baghdad government put some resources into Anbar to show the people of Anbar that they're serious about reconciliation.

And it doesn't have to be a lot of money; $100 million, $200 million, $300 million would go a long way in Anbar, because they are so impoverished. But at the same time, Ray, I caution about this. Anbar is the size of Utah. And the Iraqi forces, whether they be these tribes or the police, they don't have the mobility to move and to keep al-Qaida on the run.

So while things look much better than anyone had a right to expect out of Anbar last year, I still think that there's a role for those American companies that have high mobility to keep al-Qaida on the defense.

Anbar as a model?

Bing West
The Atlantic
Now, the question is how you move from the alignment between American Marines and Sunnis to an alignment between the Shiite government in Baghdad and the Sunnis.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David Wood, you've got some aspects in Anbar that -- I guess I need to hear from you whether they exist in other places in the country, traditional leaders who can actually deliver people and deliver local sentiments on the ground, light population, clustered in the small cities. Is this a model -- what you saw going on during your last reporting trip -- that can be exported to other provinces, where it's been tough to get traction?

DAVID WOOD: Sure, yes, Ray, I don't know, is the short answer. I think the Iraqis think there is. The organization of Iraqi sheikhs in al-Anbar province that you referred to, these roughly 200 sheikhs who decided to throw their lot in with the United States, they've changed the name of their organization. It used to be called the Awakening in Anbar. Now it's called the Awakening in Iraq, and they're exporting this idea to other provinces, and beginning to build political organizations that can help local people and Sunnis, in this case, sort of take hold of their own communities. I think it's an encouraging sign.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you sounded pretty cautious, Bing West. Even if this kind of thing works, and it does get exported to the rest of Iraq, it sounds like you're anticipating United States forces being there for a long time?

BING WEST: Against al-Qaida, yes. I'm also a little bit careful about seeing how far we really go with this model, because this really is a way whereby the Sunnis, who out in Anbar are really tough guys, basically said, "We're going to throw in," but they didn't say they were throwing in with the Baghdad government. This is the dilemma. They said, "We see that the Marines are the strongest tribe out here, so we align with the Marines."

Now, the question is how you move from the alignment between American Marines and Sunnis to an alignment between the Shiite government in Baghdad and the Sunnis. So there's another step, Ray, that still has to be taken here.

RAY SUAREZ: Bing West, David Wood, gentlemen, thank you both.