Sunday, August 26, 2007

Some Good News

Lance Cpl. Christopher Zahn / Marine Corps Marines from 1st Platoon, I Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment move through a field while conducting clearing operations during Operation Michigan earlier this summer. The operation was designed to eliminate insurgent activity 20 kilometers south of Fallujah.

Coalition makes progress in Anbar

By Michael Hoffman - Staff writer
Posted : Sunday Aug 26, 2007 11:31:25 EDT

Two years after most observers chalked up Anbar province as a lost cause in the face of stiff Sunni resistance, Marine commanders and outside experts say unprecedented progress has been made toward securing the violent region. And the numbers back that up.

Marine leaders pointed to the striking drop in the number of attacks on coalition forces and civilians across the province as proof of this “turnaround,” as the commander of Multi-National Force-West, Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin phrased it in a July 20 Pentagon briefing.

The decision by many Sunni sheikhs in the past year to stem attacks on coalition forces and instead focus their efforts on expelling al-Qaida from the region has been the key to providing more security in the province, said Lt. Col. Michael Manning, the operations officer for Regimental Combat Team 2, and Col. Richard Simcock, commander of Regimental Combat Team 6, during phone interviews from Iraq.

Gaskin referenced the drop in the number of Anbar incidents — defined as small-arms fire, indirect fire, rocket-propelled grenade attacks, and roadside bomb findings and attacks — from 428 during one week in July last year to 98 during that same week this year.

Manning said he has seen the number of incidents in his area of operations near the Syrian border drop from 95 per day to 20 in the past seven months.

Tribal leaders continue to encourage their followers to volunteer at recruit depots for the Iraqi army and local police forces in the face of al-Qaida threats against them and their families, Manning and Simcock said. Despite assassinations of tribal sheikhs by al-Qaida gunmen in the past year, the sheikhs have not swayed from offering their sons and lists with as many as 700 names of Iraqis ready to work with coalition forces, Manning said.

The increased cooperation occurred after Sunnis grew tired of al-Qaida members trying to control their tribes and attempting to bring Iraqi society back to the seventh century and eliminating modern conveniences, Simcock said. Combined with the killing of tribal sheikhs and the suicide bombings that have killed many civilians, the Anbar populace turned against al-Qaida, Manning and Simcock said.

“Al-Qaida’s abuses were so serious that it was alienating the people it was depending on for support,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior Iraq analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who just returned from a trip to Iraq, including Anbar province. He has been a frequent critic of the Bush administration’s war effort. “The longer al-Qaida was in a town, the more it alienated the people in the area.”

The number of tips Marine units have received from local Iraqis pinpointing al-Qaida cells has also increased — doubling for RCT-2 since last year — which has limited al-Qaida’s ability to blend into the local populace, Manning said.

The drop in attacks in Anbar province has allowed provincial reconstruction teams and government agencies embedded with Marine units to make headway rebuilding the region’s infrastructure. The average number of hours of electricity in Fallujah has doubled from seven to 14 hours over the past year, Simcock said.

Marine leaders and regional experts caution that the momentum built upon gaining the support of the sheikhs is dependent on receiving financial backing from the Shiite-led Iraqi national government and the inclusion of the Sunnis into the political process.

“What the sheikhs want is support in the way of money, arms and training to continue a century-old tradition of maintaining control,” said David Mack, a U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates during George H.W. Bush’s administration and the current vice president of the Middle East Institute.

He said while the Shiite-led government likes to see al-Qaida bombers distracted by Sunni fighters in Anbar province, it is hesitant to empower the Sunni sheikhs who held so much sway during Saddam Hussein’s era, when Shiites were discriminated against and even slaughtered to test chemical weapons.

U.S. forces have experimented with arming Sunni fighters, who now claim to target al-Qaida, but just recently were aiming their AK47s at Marines. Al-Qaida makes up a slight portion of the Sunni insurgency, and the Iraqi government is nervous about rearming any Sunni nationalist fighters who want to expel al-Qaida but also align themselves under umbrella insurgent groups like the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade and Ansar al Sunna. Those groups are often hostile to the current Iraq government, Mack said.

Sunni insurgency leaders, who until recently communicated only through their own Web sites, spoke with Western journalists to explain their disdain for al-Qaida and attempt to politically legitimize their groups with names like the Legitimate Committee of Ansar al-Sunna.

“Our people have come to hate al-Qaida, which gives the impression to the outside world that the resistance in Iraq are terrorists. Suicide bombing is not the best way to fight because it kills innocent civilians,” a spokesman for Ansar al-Sunna told The Guardian newspaper July 19. In the article, he went on to tell the paper his group will fight al-Qaida, but it will not stop targeting coalition forces and those that cooperate with them.

Even in the face of hazy allegiances, both Simcock and Manning re-emphasized how important it was for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to grant funding through the Ramadi provincial capital to be doled out to the Sunni sheikhs so the tribal leaders can show results of the increased cooperation to their followers.

“The Sunnis openly admit they made a mistake in the last elections,” Simcock said, regarding the Sunni boycott of government elections in 2005. “They have come and told us they want to participate.”

Sunni political groups like Anbar Awakening have popped up over the past year to help organize the political movement in the region. Awakening is made up of about 200 Sunni sheikhs who declared their platform is against al-Qaida and for cooperation with the Iraqi government in April.

The group was present at a conference in Ramadi in early July that was attended by Gaskin, Anbar province’s governor and more than 400 city professionals who celebrated the increased security in the region and the improved relationship between the Sunnis and the coalition.

Simcock said he watched how many Sunnis paid close attention to the U.S. mid-term elections in 2006, which led them to determine that Republican losses meant the U.S. wouldn’t be a permanent fixture in Iraq.

“Iraqis came to the conclusion that we weren’t making the 51st state of Iraq,” he said.

Simcock said he had noticed a distinct difference in the way tribal leaders had stopped referring to coalition forces as an occupation force since those elections.

The same level of cooperation with Sunni leaders has not been seen in the Kurdish- and Shiite-majority portions of Iraq and is not anticipated anytime soon, said Karol Sultan, who was an adviser to the Kurdistan government during negotiations concerning Iraq’s constitution.

Sultan warned there might be an unintended effect of conflict within a splintered Sunni faction due to the increased cooperation with coalition forces, much like the Mahdi Army has caused an internal conflict and violence within the Shiite majority.

Coalition forces in Anbar province have an advantage over other portions of Iraq since it’s a mostly homogenous society with few areas of Sunnis, Shiites or Kurds living together, Simcock said.

However, without the money and support from the national government, all of the progress made with the Sunni sheikhs might be wasted, he said.

“The money would be the icing on the cake for long-term solutions,” Simcock said.

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