Security gains provoke dilemma
Monday, December 03, 2007

By Bill Cahir

WASHINGTON When Colonel Richard Simcock assumed command of Marines in and around Fallujah at the end of January 2006, his Marines were engaged in gunfights on a daily basis.

Ten months later, not just days but weeks go by without any Iraqi police officer or American firing a shot in Fallujah, a Sunni city that has until now seen some of the hardest fighting of the Iraq war.

Lieutenant Colonel Thad McWhorter, deputy commander of the Army's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, tells a similar story about what has been one of the most violent cities in Iraq: Ramadi, the capital of al Anbar Province, the place where Sahawah al Anbar, or the awakening of tribal sheikhs who were opposed to al-Qaida, got its start one year ago.

When McWhorter's soldiers arrived in February, Ramadi still was wracked by up to 35 insurgent attacks each day. U.S. soldiers and Marines faced roadside bombs, snipers and complex ambushes. Iraqi security forces faced the constant threat of suicide attacks.

Nine months later, Ramadi is far quieter. Generally, the city witnesses one or fewer insurgent attacks each day. McWhorter's staff says that, at one point this year, 112 days passed consecutively without a single assault upon U.S. forces.

Colonel H. Stacy Clardy III, commander of Marine units patrolling the western regions of al Anbar, including Rutbah, al Qaim and the three-city triad of Haditha, Barwanah and Haqlaniyah, has witnessed at least a 75 percent drop in insurgent attacks this year.

"Throughout western Al Anbar, attacks from dropped from 95 a week down to roughly 20-25 a week," Clardy, commander of Regimental Combat Team 2, wrote in a recent e-mail. "The number keeps dropping. The severity and complexity of these attacks are also dropping."

Clardy recently took a 750-mile road trip through his battle space, and found that Iraqis were in some ways voting against al-Qaida with their actions day-to-day: Iraqi children were attending school. Women were buying goods at shops. Men were meeting in the open to discuss the future.

Fatality statistics confirm that the war in al Anbar Province has changed for the better.

The Web site tallied 314 combat deaths of U.S. personnel in al Anbar Province last year.

Through the first 11 months of this year, it counted less than half that number of fatalities, or 140 Marines and soldiers killed in 2007. And the vast majority of those deaths occurred in the first half of this year.

Simcock, commander of what the Marine Corps calls Regimental Combat Team 6, attributes positive change in Fallujah to four factors: expanding cooperation from Sunni tribal sheikhs; increasing strength and professionalism in the Iraqi security forces drawing their membership from local tribes; the availability of 1,000 additional Marines, or 6,000 overall, who have been deployed to the Fallujah area in association with President Bush's troop surge; and the slow, steady passage of time.

"A counterinsurgency is not won quickly," Simcock said in a recent telephone interview. "It's something that you have to invest a lot of time into, because what you're trying to get is the local populace to support you. Building relationships that's not something you just show up and say, We're U.S. Marines and we're here to help.' You've got to show (Iraqis) what you can do. And that takes time."

Simcock emphasized his belief that Marines under his command were benefiting from the security, tribal engagement and intelligence-gathering gains made by prior three prior regimental combat teams that served in the Fallujah area throughout 2004, 2005 and 2006.

McWhorter claimed in a separate telephone interview that the Ramadan assassination of Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the first leader of the Anbar Awakening Council rebelling against al-Qaida, actually had weakened terrorist groups in the Ramadi area.

McWhorter explained that the car-bomb killing of Sheikh Sattar and two of his bodyguards galvanized Ramadi-area resistance to Salafist groups who had declared Ramadi to be the capital of an Islamic state. Sheikh Sattar in death became a martyr for ordinary people who wanted to live in a peaceful, modern city, McWhorter said.

"Killing Sheikh Sattar was the continuation of the same type of attacks that created the (Anbar) awakening," McWhorter stated. "It was heavy-handed murder and intimidation. They decided to do a reprisal against the most popular man that al Anbar has produced in quite a while. His image is everywhere ... There was an emotional response in favor of the work he had done and what he stood for."

Clardy claims that Marines in the western reaches of al Anbar Province, even in Haditha, are benefiting from enthusiastic local cooperation. Marines and Iraqis now have a chance to deal decisive blows to al-Qaida, he claims.

But Clardy rejects the notion that security gains pave the way for a rapid or unilateral withdrawal of American forces from what has been the most violent province in all of Iraq for much of the past five years.

"I can tell you that we are winning in my area of operation, and that Iraqi local, provincial and central governments handling more and more of their own issues," Clardy wrote in his e-mail. "We are on the cusp of turning much of the responsibility for their future over to them. We are past the tipping point in al Anbar Province. Provincial Iraqi control will soon be a reality. It is premature to get out' now, but we are ready to reduce our presence in many areas."

The next step: The three commanders separately said that al Anbar Province likely will be ready next year to launch its own provincial elections. Iraq in December 2005 elected a national assembly, but Iraqi voters did not get a chance to elect their own local officials. Security gains may allow a new round of voting in western Iraq next year, according to Army and Marine commanders there.

President Bush has requested $196 billion for combat operations in Iraq in fiscal 2008, the current budget cycle. The House has passed a bill that would provide about one-quarter of that, or $50 billion. But the House measure also would require the president to begin troop withdrawals in December and would impose a goal of completing a full U.S. withdrawal by the end of next year. President Bush has threatened a veto, and the Senate GOP has blocked the bill with a filibuster.

U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews voted for the $50 billion proposal, and the troop-withdrawal language. He emphasized his concern about having U.S. personnel in Baghdad trying to referee sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites in the Iraqi capital.

"We stand as a referee for a civil war that isn't ending, that won't end until there is a political solution, and I don't think there will be a political solution until Iraqis know that we're leaving," Andrews, D-1st Dist., said at the time of the House vote. "That's why I voted for tying the money to commencing the process of withdrawing the troops and moving us out of this civil war."

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo refused to endorse the mandatory withdrawal timeline. He voted against the House bill and cited some of the recent security gains in al Anbar.

In an interview, however, LoBiondo endorsed the concept of parceling out the war funding in sums of $50 billion or some similar amount that would be smaller than the president's request. It was appropriate, LoBiondo said, for Congress to keep tabs on the Iraq operation and demand accountability for money spent.

"For a long time, the administration said there were no problems in Iraq and we should just leave everything to the State Department and the Pentagon," LoBiondo stated. "Clearly, Mr. Rumsfeld made a series of serious mistakes, and in hindsight, additional congressional oversight might have been helpful ... Giving the money out in smaller bits than the administration is asking (for) is probably a good thing."

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat from central New Jersey, opposed the Iraq war when it first came up for a vote in October 2002. Holt, D-12th Dist., on Friday said he no longer would vote for any bill that would continue to fund the Iraq war but fail to launch an explicit exit strategy.

"I can't bring myself to vote for continuing this deadly mistake," Holt stated. "What I'm trying to do is to find a way to force a change in policy. And I don't think this (House bill) will succeed, and I don't know what will. It really is a very unhappy quandary."