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A quieter Anbar Province rebuilds

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

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

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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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