Key members of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government made a rare trip to the Sunni bastion of Anbar Province Thursday to pledge more than $120 million in reconstruction money. Iraqi and US officials call it a significant step toward political reconciliation. Critics say it's too little, too late.
Mr. Maliki did not make the trip, but dispatched top deputies who met with Sunni sheikhs, Anbar officials, US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who was there as part of a tour through Iraq.
The overture to war-torn Anbar, long an insurgent stronghold where Sunni tribes have joined the US fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq, comes as Maliki is facing criticism from both US lawmakers and Iraq's Sunni politicians for failing to mend widening political and sectarian fault lines within the government.
While the money for Anbar – $70 million in reconstruction funds and $50 million to repair homes destroyed in the war – appears to be an Iraqi initiative, the US has been pushing Maliki to show more of an effort to reconcile with minority political parties.
Indeed, this one-day gathering in Ramadi comes just days before Mr. Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus are set to give their assessments of progress in Iraq in Washington. Congress is likely to focus on the Iraqi government's failure to meet most of the 18 benchmarks established by the White House to measure success in Iraq.
While the country still faces almost daily car bombings and violence at the hands of militias, Anbar has shown a degree of success.
On Thursday, Crocker marveled that the gathering of Baghdad politicians and Sunni sheikhs here could be held at all – and that security wasn't even an issue of discussion.
"The success [is] that Anbaris, the Iraqis, and the coalition have [pushed] Al Qaeda out to the extent that a conference [can be] held that doesn't even talk about security," he said. "It's all about development, services, compensation, and jobs," he said under a tent over a celebratory feast. "That's really significant."
The commitments made by the Maliki government include 6,000 new government jobs, new generators, and other measures.
The meeting was held in the government center of downtown Ramadi, the provincial capital. Even a year ago, the government center building here was itself not secure enough to hold such a meeting. Dozens sat around a long table Thursday and made speeches in Arabic with military translators helping to translate for American officials here.
But Senator Biden, visiting Iraq as part of a Congressional delegation, put his proverbial finger in the collective chest of the central government in remarks he made during the ceremony.
American patience with the Iraqi government is wearing thin, he said, and it's time for the government to do more to pull together for all of Iraq. Commitments, such as the one Thursday, are a positive sign he said, but more such commitments must be made by the central government. If not, then US forces should return home, he said.
"If you continue, we will continue to send you our sons and our daughters to shed their blood with you and for you," said Biden. "If you decide you cannot live together, let us know.... we can say goodbye now."
Biden suggested that the Iraqi government could move faster (than the US 200 years ago) toward establishing a functioning central government.
"Maybe you will do better than we did, but respectfully I doubt it," he told the packed room.
Barham Saleh, an Iraqi deputy prime minister who is Kurdish, said he understands Biden's impatience. But he, as long as the rest of the American public – must understand that creating a central government is not an easy thing, especially in the environment in which it is occurring.
"We need to do a lot better, but in the context of things, people need to recognize the difficulties and the challenges that we have," he said after the event. "This country is going through a tough transition."
He acknowledged that American support will not go on forever.
"We cannot be complacent about American support. Iraqi leaders need to recognize that international goodwill cannot be unlimited," he said, adding that it is pressure from the Iraqi people themselves that the central government feels the most pressure. "We need to deliver for our people, but let me tell you that the real pressure on us is from our own people."
Pat Lang, a retired US special forces colonel and former senior official at the Defense Intelligence Agency, says outreach to the Sunni Arabs of Anbar is long overdue. "Is this a good thing? It depends on which Iraq you're thinking of," says Lang.
"If you're thinking of the Iraq of the neocons' hopes and dreams – one with a stable central government that serves as a revolutionary foothold for change in the Middle East, then you're disappointed."
"But if you're like me and the tribal Iraqis, and think of the government we've created as inherently flawed, then things are finally moving in the right direction. A new political balance is being created because the government realizes that a modus vivendi needs to be worked out with these various Sunni entities that are armed and effective."
Lang doesn't expect immediate results, but says that gestures towards Sunni Arabs by Iraq's Shiite Islamist central government represent the only hope of stabilizing Iraq. "This reflects a realization... on Maliki's part, of reality."