A quieter Anbar Province rebuilds
As security concerns recede, Iraqi tribal chiefs turn to US for more mundane community needs.
When Marine Lt. Col. Bill Mullen showed up at the city council meeting here Tuesday, everyone wanted a piece of him. There was the sheikh who wants to open a school, the judge who wants the colonel to be at the jail when several inmates are freed, and the Iraqi who just wants a burned-out trash bin removed from his neighborhood.Skip to next paragraph
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As insurgent violence continues to decrease in Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar Province – an improvement that President Bush heralded in his visit to Al Asad Air Base Monday as one sign of progress in the war – the conversation is shifting in Anbar. Where sheikhs and tribal leaders once only asked the US to protect them from Sunni extremists, now they want to know how to get their streets cleaned and where to buy generators.
"Security dominated everything, and we weren't able to get anything done," says Colonel Mullen, battalion commander here.
It's been six months since the so-called Anbar Awakening, when Sunni sheikhs joined US Marines in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Sunni extremists may still have a presence here, but US military officials say that with the help of the expanding Iraqi security forces, they've driven most of what remains of Al Qaeda from the urban areas.
Violence has stayed down, dropping from 2,000 attacks in March to about 450 last month – as the number of Iraqi security forces has increased, from around 24,000 this spring to nearly 40,000 today.
The changes here have allowed provincial and local governments to get established over the past few months, US officials here say. And now, true to the tribal culture that permeates Iraqi society, Sunni sheikhs here want to create a relationship of true patronage with what they consider to be the biggest and most powerful tribe here: the Marines of Anbar Province.
New strategy for spending US money
Much of the local population here has always wanted the US to give them handouts, but it's different now, American officials say. Over the past few years, the strategy here was to clear an area of danger and then swoop down with reconstruction projects in an attempt to win over the populace. That was because Anbar was still dangerous, still peppered with Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists. The US would see a project finished, only to be destroyed.
Now, say Marine officials, they'll only spend money on a project that tribal sheikhs want only if those sheikhs get buy-in from the local and provincial governments that will ultimately own and maintain it.
"We don't want this to be about us spending American money for the sheikhs," says Brig. Gen. John Allen, who oversees political and economic reconstruction for Multi-National Forces-West. "We want this to be about American money that makes a difference in bringing government along and making the sheikhs part of the government."
The Special Inspector General of Iraqi Reconstruction's report, which was released this summer, lamented the dismal ability of Iraqis to accept responsibility for projects the US had completed. Political and budgetary weaknesses, combined with the lack of bureaucratic know-how has resulted in thousands of US-completed projects across Iraq not being taken over by the Iraqis.
Under this system, says General Allen, a project won't begin until the local sheikhs and governments agree on how, say, a new school building, will be staffed, funded, and maintained. It weakens the position of the sheikhs, who were the lone leaders in Anbar just five months ago. But that tough approach forces them to connect with the local and provincial governments, resulting in a project that is relatively secure – and paid for.