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Blast in Iraq Targets Anti-al-Qaida Leaders

June 25, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: John Burns, welcome. As we reported earlier, among the four sites that suicide bombers hit in Iraq today was the lobby of the well-known Mansour Hotel, where the blast killed some Sunni tribal leaders who had been cooperating with U.S. forces in Anbar province. Tell us about that: Is there any doubt that they were the intended target of this bomber?

JOHN BURNS, Baghdad Bureau Chief, New York Times: No doubt whatsoever. There was a meeting of Anbar province tribal sheikhs in this high-rise hotel, not, I have to say, a very well-guarded high-rise hotel, and it seems that the lessons too often here are learned after the event.

I’d been to the Mansour Hotel many times and have never felt particularly safe there. I’ve never felt that the vehicles entering or the people were sufficiently checked. Be that as it may, these Anbar sheikhs who are cooperating with the United States have made an enormous difference in what was the most dangerous province in Iraq, west of Baghdad, Anbar, overwhelmingly Sunni.

I was out there today at the capital, Ramadi, with General Odierno, the operational commander of U.S. troops here, and it’s gone from being the most dangerous place in Iraq, with the help of the tribal sheikhs, to being one of the least dangerous places. And it’s extremely important for the entire American enterprise here.

So the bomb that killed one very prominent sheikh and four or five others among the 12 who died was an arrow aimed at the heart of the American enterprise here.

Reliability of Sunni tribal leaders

MARGARET WARNER: When this policy was announced, there were doubts or concerns in some quarters about what you might call accountability. In other words, how reliable were these Sunni tribal leaders whom the U.S. was now helping to arm? And where would the weapons end up? And might they be turned against American forces? What are your sources inside and outside of the military telling you so far on that score?

JOHN BURNS: They're not worried about it today. Out in Ramadi, I talked to Colonel John Charlton, who is the American officer directly responsible for dealing with the tribal sheikhs out there, for recruiting thousands, actually, of Iraqi policeman from amongst youngsters who are sent by the tribal sheikhs, some of whom, undoubtedly many of whom, may previously have been among the enemy and among the Sunni Baathist or nationalist insurgency in Anbar.

He's not worried about it at the moment. He has some worries about it in the longer term. He thinks that they have to be fairly carefully watched. But the performance so far of those police officers, he told me, has been irreproachable, and it has brought the number of attacks down in Ramadi from something on the order from 30 to 40 a day down to about one a day, and no bombs, no roadside bombs in central Ramadi now for some weeks. This is a state that was barely imaginable as recently as four or five months ago.

Status of al-Qaida

MARGARET WARNER: And so where have the al-Qaida-linked insurgents gone? Are they in hiding or have they gone elsewhere?

JOHN BURNS: Well, first of all, they took a pretty good hiding from the first brigade combat team of the Third Infantry Division, many of whom, I have to say, are now on their third tour here. They were out there, and they took them on, along with Marines who are stationed in Anbar. And they gave them a pretty good hiding, and that encouraged the tribal sheikhs, if you will, to change their position, course correction, to begin to see the American enterprise here as something that is perhaps something that they should side with.

Now, the question is whether this can be replicated in other parts of Anbar, and that's why General Odierno flew there from Baghdad today -- it's about a hundred miles west of Baghdad -- to take a look at how things have gone there and to see what lessons can be learned and exported, if you will, to the new trouble centers, like Diyala, province to the north and northeast of Baghdad, and to the provinces immediately to the south, which have become the principal al-Qaida trouble areas in Iraq other than Baghdad itself.

Areas of Sunni-Shia conflict

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how do General Odierno and other commanders propose to do something like this in more mixed areas, that is to arm Sunni leaders without having those weapons then used in the civil conflict against Shiites?

JOHN BURNS: Margaret, that's a very smart question; that's exactly the problem. The government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite-led government, has been happy to go along with the Salvation Council, the Awakening, as it's also called, amongst the tribal sheikhs in Anbar, because it's an overwhelmingly Sunni province. It's a Sunni issue.

In areas where there are conflicts between Sunni and Shia, obviously, recruiting large numbers of Sunnis through the tribal sheikhs into the police and giving them weapons poses potential problems for Mr. Maliki, who's worrying about, first of all, the Shiite sectarian interests, but, secondly, about, in effect, fueling a civil war.

So General Odierno, we talked about this out there in Ramadi today, and they recognize that that's going to be difficult, not impossible, but difficult. And it's not at all clear that you can export the whole of the Anbar experience to Diyala and to the southern approaches to Baghdad.

But it's so remarkable a change that there are some lessons that can be learned, and one of them is: Go after al-Qaida hard, hit them really hard wherever you find them, and then try and change the balance of advantages it's calculated by tribal leaders on both sides, both the Sunni tribal leaders and the Shiite tribal leaders.

Opinion here in Iraq is intimidation-led. If the American forces manage to get on top of al-Qaida, then you'll begin to see a swing in all of these areas. Whether they can do that or not remains to be seen, but General Odierno told me today that he thinks 90 days will be the point at which the present offensives in these areas around Baghdad, where it will be possible to tell the degree of success and to begin to move Iraqi forces in behind them.

So there's quite a long way to go yet to see whether or not these offensives can finally begin to turn the tide here.

MARGARET WARNER: John Burns of the New York Times, thank you again so much.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you, Margaret.