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Anbar streets illustrate Petraeus's testimony

Marines say the strategy in Iraq's Sunni province works, but sheikhs say US support has an expiration date.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2007



Fallujah, Iraq

The signatures of war are everywhere: bombed-out buildings pockmarked with bullet holes, sheets hanging in the windows, rubble aplenty.

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But amid all this in Fallujah, a gritty Sunni city of about 400,000 that witnessed a devastating US offensive in November 2004, life is beginning to return to normal. More shops are open to sell wheelbarrows and toys, and workers feverishly paint new cement barriers, some with elaborate murals.

The signs of this restoration illustrate the successes throughout Anbar Province that Gen. David Petraeus testified about before Congress on Monday.

"The change in the security situation in Anbar Province has, of course, been particularly dramatic.... A year ago the province was assessed as 'lost' politically. Today, it is a model of what happens when local leaders and citizens decide to oppose Al Qaeda and reject its Taliban-like ideology," he told lawmakers.

In the general's assessment of progress in Iraq, specifically relating to the "surge" of troops that placed more than 30,000 troops in Iraq by mid-June, he held out Anbar as a success story, even though the gains here began before the increase in troop levels. But the additional forces, he said, allowed the US to build on the achievements there, chiefly bolstering the tribal rejection of Al Qaeda-linked elements and other insurgent groups.

Marines on the ground indeed see the progress here that General Petraeus, along with US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, testified about in Washington.

"From the beginning of the deployment until now, the change is really quite remarkable," says Marine 2nd Lt. Eric Dwyer, who commands a joint security station with Americans and Iraqis in the Jolan district of Fallujah. He was deployed to Anbar in January, just before the beginning of the surge of troops.

One junior enlisted Marine, returning from his two-week break at home, says he wished he'd never gone back because now he faces another five months before the end of his deployment. Yet, he says, when he does leave altogether, in February, he feels as if he will miss the unfolding of what he sees as good news here. "I want to see what happens."

While the successes here have largely been the result of winning over Sunni sheikhs, many of those leaders say that level of support does have an expiration date.

One is a Sunni sheikh from Fallujah. Sheikh Salam Ajimi is a supporter of US forces and has been part of the turnaround. But he recognizes that while Anbaris appreciate the increased security here, they'd also like their country back.

"All the Iraqi people, they don't like the occupation, but sometimes you have to do things and sometimes you have to cooperate with the other side," says Mr. Ajimi, noting that "our biggest problems are with Iran."

Ajimi once owned a construction company, and in 2004, he says, he was held, blindfolded, and handcuffed by US forces for several hours before he was let go.

"They did what they wanted to do," Ajimi says of the Americans in the earlier years of the war. "It's changed now, they listen to us and that's why their mission is more successful in the city."

And an Anbari from the western part of the province says the Americans have learned how to work with the local population and security has improved. Yet, he says, US forces should now retrench back to larger bases, leaving the streets behind.

"I believe the Iraqi Army and Iraqi police can take care of it because they know the area better," says the Iraqi, who refused to give his name for security reasons.

Anbar could be a victim of its success, and any effort to begin withdrawing forces could mean a more precipitous withdrawal by the Marines. Indeed, Multi-National Forces-West, the Marine unit operating in Anbar, is already planning to begin shrinking its bases. It will then go into what officers call "operational overwatch" in which marines act only when the Iraqi police or Army can't do it on their own.

While, as Petraeus said Monday, the tribal rejection of Al Qaeda in Iraq has been significant, the National Intelligence Estimate, released last month, showed that major challenges remain elsewhere.

"The level of overall violence, including attacks on and casualties among civilians remains high; Iraq's sectarian groups remain unreconciled; [Al Qaeda in Iraq] retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks; and, to date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively," the report said.

Other assessments of the current state of Iraq paint a troubling portrait of the country. A recent US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report indicated the central government of Iraq had failed to meet 11 of 18 key benchmarks set by Washington. A third report, an assessment of the Iraqi security forces, said that the Iraqis could not likely stand on their own for another 18 months. It recommended that the Iraqi national police be disbanded due to infiltration by sectarian militias.

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