View Full Version : Showcase and Chimera in the Desert

07-08-07, 11:09 AM
July 8, 2007
Zone by Zone
Showcase and Chimera in the Desert


SUNNI merchants watched warily from behind neat stacks of fruit and vegetables as Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno walked with a platoon of bodyguards through the Qatana bazaar here one recent afternoon. At last, one leathery-faced trader glanced furtively up and down the narrow, refuse-strewn street to check who might be listening, then broke the silence.

“America good! Al Qaeda bad!” he said in halting English, flashing a thumb’s-up in the direction of America’s second-ranking commander in Iraq.

Until only a few months ago, the Central Street bazaar was enemy territory, watched over by American machine-gunners in sandbagged bunkers on the roof of the governor’s building across the road. Ramadi was Iraq’s most dangerous city, and the area around the building the most deadly place in Ramadi. Now, a pact between local tribal sheiks and American commanders has sent thousands of young Iraqis from Anbar Province into the fight against extremists linked to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The deal has all but ended the fighting in Ramadi and recast the city as a symbol of hope that the tide of the war may yet be reversed to favor the Americans and their Iraqi allies.

In a speech 10 days ago to the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., President Bush cited the turnaround here and elsewhere in Anbar Province, a vast desert hinterland that accounts for nearly a third of Iraq, as a reason to resist demands from Democrats in Congress for an early withdrawal of United States troops. But Mr. Bush’s pitch masked some of the crucial questions that still confront American commanders.

Two factors that have led to the astonishing success in Anbar — the Sunnis’ dominance of the province and the nature of their foe here — could have the opposite effect elsewhere, especially in Baghdad. There the population is an explosive mix of sects, rather than largely Sunni. And the Sunnis’ fight — explicitly so, in the case of many of the new volunteers — is not just against Al Qaeda-linked extremists, but ultimately against the American presence here, and beyond the Americans, the new power of the majority Shiites.

The Anbar turnaround developed just as Mr. Bush was committing nearly 30,000 additional American troops to Iraq in a bid to regain control of Baghdad and the “belt” areas that surround it. The so-called troop surge reached full strength in mid-June, and the results so far have been mixed. In any case, the Pentagon has told American commanders it can be maintained only until next March, at the latest.

This has left commanders looking beyond the surge’s end, to a point when the trajectory of the war, increasingly, will be determined by decisions the Iraqis make for themselves. So the question is whether the Anbar experience can be “exported” to other combat zones, as Mr. Bush suggested, by arming tribally based local security forces and recruiting thousands of young Sunnis, including former members of Baathist insurgent groups, into Iraq’s army and police force.

Or is what has happened here possible only because of Anbar’s demographics? Were local sheiks able to rally against the extremist groups because Anbar’s population of 1.3 million is almost entirely Sunni — a population that does not have to guard Sunni unity in the face of the Shiite militias and death squads that have sprung up in Baghdad and other provinces in response to Sunni extremist attacks?

And there are the complexities of Baghdad politics to consider. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who leads the Shiite-dominated national government, has backed the tribal outreach in Anbar as a way to strengthen Sunni moderates against Sunni extremists there. But he has warned that replicating the pattern elsewhere could arm Sunni militias for use in a civil war with Shiites.

It was to seek some answers to these questions that General Odierno, operational commander of coalition forces in Iraq, made his Ramadi trip. He flew the 90 miles from Baghdad in one of four helicopters that skimmed low over a gold-and-green patchwork of harvested grain fields, irrigation channels and palm groves — fertile terrain known in the ancient world as Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

In the fields, men driving tractors and children playing along the lanes rarely bothered to look up as the two Black Hawk transport helicopters and their Apache gunship escorts clattered overhead. Anbar has been a war zone now for four years, and the Americans are as much a part of life as the 120-degree summer heat.

Ramadi, which lies on the edge of a desert that reaches west from the city to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, had a population of 400,000 in Saddam Hussein’s time. That was before the insurgents — a patchwork of Al Qaeda-linked militants, die-hard loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party and other resistance groups fighting to oust American forces from Iraq — coalesced in a terror campaign that turned much of the city into a ghost town, and much of Anbar into a cauldron for American troops. Last year, a leaked Marine intelligence report conceded that the war in Anbar was effectively lost, and that it was on course to becoming the seat of the Islamic militants’ plans to establish a new caliphate in Iraq.

The key to turning that around was the shift in allegiance by tribal sheiks. But the sheiks turned only after a prolonged offensive by American and Iraqi forces, starting in November, that put Al Qaeda groups on the run, in Ramadi and elsewhere across western Anbar.

Not for the first time, the Americans learned a basic lesson of warfare here: that Iraqis, bludgeoned for 24 years by Saddam Hussein’s terror, are wary of rising against any force, however brutal, until it is in retreat. In Anbar, Sunni extremists were the dominant force, with near-total popular support or acquiescence, until the offensive broke their power.

The Ramadi crackdown picked up earlier this year with the arrival of the Third Infantry Division’s First Brigade Combat Team, under the command of Col. John W. Charlton, a 47-year-old native of Spokane, Wash., who like many American soldiers in Iraq is on his third tour in Iraq in four years.

Colonel Charlton’s troops, backed by Marine units, have teamed with the Iraqi Army in clearing the extremists from one Ramadi district after another. In February, the extremists were averaging 30 to 35 attacks daily. By late June, the average was down to one a day, and the Americans had counted nearly 50 days with no attacks at all.

Across Anbar, according to figures compiled by the American command, insurgent attacks fell from 1,300 last October to 225 in June. The command says the Ramadi offensive put more than 800 extremists out of action — more than 200 killed or wounded, and nearly 600 captured. American losses in Ramadi in the same period, were 19 soldiers and Marines killed, though Iraqi security force casualties were higher. In the wake of their offensive, American and Iraqi units moved out of large bases on Ramadi’s outskirts to establish more than 100 smaller posts across the city, most of them in previous no-go zones. Now, Colonel Charlton says, “We are living among the people,” building relationships with local leaders.

Along with this, the Americans have revived local government structures, and launched a $30 million program — part of a $300 million effort across Anbar — to repair war damage, compensate property owners and finance start-up businesses. Thousands of families have returned to neighborhoods they abandoned, and house prices have leapt upward, quadrupling in some areas. “We couldn’t go more than 200 meters from this base when I arrived,” said Capt. Ian Brooks, a Marine officer at one new neighborhood base. “Now, I can walk the streets without any problem.”

But the change that made all the others possible, American officers say, was the alliance with the sheiks. In Ramadi, 23 tribal leaders approached the Americans and offered to fight the extremists by forming “provincial security battalions,” neighborhood police auxiliaries, and by sending volunteers to the Iraqi Army and police. Across Anbar, the 3,500 policemen in October jumped to 21,500 by June. In Ramadi, where there were fewer than 100 policemen last year, there are now 3,500.

Many recruits, American officers acknowledge, were previously insurgents. “There’s a lot of guys wearing blue shirts out there who were shooting at us last year,” Colonel Charlton said.

The trend has spread to other areas where American and Iraqi troops are fighting extremists, including the Sunni district of Amariya in Baghdad, where former insurgents have been given arms and ammunition to fight Al Qaeda-linked groups. Other areas are in Diyala Province, parts of the so-called Triangle of Death south of Baghdad in Babil Province, and parts of Salahuddin and Nineveh, provinces with large Sunni populations north of Baghdad.

In an interview last week, the overall American commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, described the eagerness of at least some Sunnis in each of the five provinces to fight against Sunni extremists as the “most significant” development in his five months as commander. “Local security is helped incalculably by local support and local involvement, and that’s what’s happened,” he said.

But in the face of the unease that American engagement with the Sunni groups has caused among Shiite leaders, the general stressed the caution with which the American command is proceeding.

“What the Iraqi government and we are trying to do is to ensure that they are linked into government structures, that they’re on the payroll of the Iraqi government, that they’ve sworn allegiance to the Iraqi government, that they’ve been vetted by the Iraqi government and coalition forces, and that they’ve given us their biometric data and been run against our databases” of wanted insurgents, he said.

The purpose of these steps, he said, was to ensure that “we’re not just helping legitimize groups that, once Al Qaeda is done with, will turn their weapons on someone else.”