A quieter Anbar Province rebuilds

As security concerns recede, Iraqi tribal chiefs turn to US for more mundane community needs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"Does that threaten the sheikhs? It can," says Allen. "But they're not going to get the money from us."

Anbar has emerged as a bright spot in a war for which patience is wearing thin. In his third visit to Iraq since the war began, Mr. Bush appeared to want to replicate that success across Iraq.

Whether Anbar's progress can be repeated is much debated, but Bush hinted that if those improvements can spread to other areas, the number of American troops in Iraq could be reduced. "General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have said that if the security situation continues to improve the way it has, we may be able to achieve the same objectives with fewer troops," he said Monday.

Referring to the roughly 25,000 marines in Anbar, Allen says, "This time next year, we could be half our size."

He added that the Marines' future in Anbar will be one of what he calls "operational overwatch," in which marines will retract their operations as Iraqi police forces stand up to provide their own security.

"We'll be out there if they need us, but we want [the police] to be the first line of defense, and if [the threat] is too big for them, then the Iraq Army can handle it, and if it's too big for them, then we'll come back in," Allen says.

Can the 'Anbar model' spread?

Unlike in other areas, the Marines had an opportunity to cut deals with the sheikhs here in part because of the relative homogeneity of the Sunni-dominated province. In more mixed areas, the "Anbar model" may not work. And critics worry that engaging with the Sunnis, and arming them to fight Sunni extremism in their own backyard, will contribute to sectarianism elsewhere.

But experts argue that it's the political dynamic within a tribal family – not the religious one – that ultimately motivates individuals to act in one way or another: it's not as much about Sunni-Shiite as it is about the tribes, regardless of their religious allegiance, they say. Sunni and Shiite groups can coexist as long as the tribal political dynamics are stable, experts on counterinsurgencies here say.

"Tribal identity trumps sectarian identity," says one Naval officer working here who did not want to be identified by name due to the sensitivity of his job.

There is some evidence now that what's good for Anbar is good for Iraq. In some areas southwest of Baghdad in Yusufiyah, groups of what American military units call "concerned citizens" are getting together to ally with Americans.

In the area near Yusufiyah, Sunnis are coalescing in these groups and, along with the surge of US forces this spring, that has contributed to a decline of attacks across the region by 26 percent, says Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands the 3rd Infantry Division there.

He says he believes success in Anbar can translate to Shiite areas, too. "Just like the Sunni population is tired of Al Qaeda, there are elements of the Shiite population that is tired of [Shiite] ... militia influence," he says. "They just want to be safe."

As for Mullen, he wishes all the work that's being done would get done faster as the Iraqis take more responsibility for reconstruction – and govern themselves more efficiently.

"I'm not the most patient one there is, my wife will tell you that very quickly," he says.

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