Marines face last insurgent stronghold in Iraq's Anbar Province
While the Sunni heartland has largely turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq, insurgents are still doing battle in the 'wild' reaches of the province.
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"How are the people doing? Are the schools open for children?" Kelly asks, after removing his helmet and flak jacket. "How's the economy?"Skip to next paragraph
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The mayor of this town of 50,000, who goes by the name Qasim, fingered the gold watch hanging from his wrist, offered a pained smile and says, "The economy? We don't have one."
The town is withering from both the Al Qaeda in Iraq-backed insurgency and the Coalition-led traffic checkpoints, Qasim says. The checkpoints aimed at snagging fighters and bomb-building supplies have stifled the town's few-remaining legitimate business.
As the general's aides scribble notes, Qasim tosses his hands in the air and says Rutbah is faced with an impossibly sticky situation. "There could not be an economy if there is no security."
Much of the rest of Anbar has calmed because of last year's surge in US forces, combined with a massive hiring spree of Iraqi police officers, Kelly says. A year ago, about 6,000 Iraqi police patrolled the huge province. Many didn't have weapons and were easy targets for both bribes and bullets, Kelly says.
Today, about four times as many police serve in the cities of Anbar, but the surrounding desert remains largely lawless.
In coming months, about 10 percent of the 25,000 marines serving in Anbar are scheduled to return home, but two Iraqi Army brigades will move in to the region, which should help maintain the tenuous security, Kelly says.
Troop withdrawals will be a major focus of Petraeus's testimony in Washington. The general, the top US military commander in Iraq, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker are expected to advise Congress that the military should halt withdrawals after July to evaluate security issues, Reuters reported on Monday.
Qasim knows that many Americans want even more troops to leave Iraq. He urged the general to tell his leaders in Washington that the troops should stay.
"Withdrawal right now means handing Iraq to Iran. This will fulfill the dreams of the Iranians for an empire," the mayor says, echoing a common fear in the province. Qasim also spoke out against the idea of partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish regions. "The first ones to lose if Iraq gets divided are the Americans. For generations to come, [the Iraqis] will not say the fault was Iranian. They will say it was the Americans."
Along with this message, Qasim hoped the general could come up with salaries for his police officers. About 50 members of the town's force of 337 officers have not been paid in recent months. And $15,000 is needed for a construction project to speed up one of the checkpoints.