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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: REVISING STRATEGY; EMPOWERING
WOMEN

Calming voice sought in a restive region

The Marines hope to persuade Iraqi women in Al Anbar province to talk their men into fighting the insurgency.

January 07, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDADI, IRAQ — The living room of the local sheik is filled to the bursting point with women. Some are covered in traditional garb and say little. Others take pictures and talk excitedly. They have come together for an unlikely gathering in this patriarchal society: a women's discussion group.

The U.S. military is reaching out to women in several communities in the rebel stronghold of Al Anbar province, in hopes of persuading them to tell their husbands and sons to help in the fight against the insurgency.

"We want to empower the women to the point where they can have a positive influence on the men, when they're alone, in the home, in the bedroom," said Marine Master Sgt. James Allen, who helps coordinate the effort but, as a man, cannot attend the gatherings.

Angela Khadijah Williams, a public diplomacy officer with the State Department, goes a step further. She believes outreach to Iraqi women is essential.

"If you don't bring them in, you're not going to win," said Williams, who is based at Camp Fallouja to help with what the military calls the Women's Engagement Program.

In this community along the Euphrates River, 120 miles from Baghdad, Sheik Mal Allah has given approval to a women's group and allowed it to meet in his home. The turnout was so good for the recent session, he joked that if any more came, "they'd break my house."

Allah also is a member of the City Council and, along with his brother, has rallied residents to resist intimidation and hijacking of food by insurgents in surrounding cities. His brother is a colonel with the local police.

"You are my brothers," the sheik told a group of visiting Marine brass.

The women's outreach effort is in its first stages with no tangible results so far, another reason the Marines say the fight against the insurgency in Al Anbar is a long process where patience is key.

"Right now, we're relationship-building, listening to these women

In Baghdadi, female Marines and Navy corpsmen have given lectures to the group on prenatal and child care and other health issues.

The U.S. has donated sewing machines. The Marine Corps plans to provide a building inside the troops' guarded compound here where the women can meet safely.

Brig. Gen. Robert Neller, deputy commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said he hoped the women would realize that "the insurgency has nothing to offer these people."

The sheik has taken a strong stand against the insurgents. "They want to take us back in history," he said through an interpreter.

After initially being resistant to helping the Americans, the sheik has come to believe the United States presents the best opportunity to combat the insurgents and compensate for a government in Baghdad that he does not believe cares about this Sunni Arab community.

"Nobody helps us from the Iraqi government," he said. "They do nothing to remove our sadness."

So far, few sheiks are as willing as Allah to embrace the idea of women's participation. In Qaim, near the Syrian border, for example, the men initially gave their approval to a meeting of women but then withdrew it.

Finding a sheik to step forward in the fight against the insurgency is not easy, Marines said. In the nearby community of Hit, no sheik has been as bold as Allah.

"Identifying trustworthy, reliable people willing to step up and take a position of responsibility has been difficult," said Army Capt. Will Bardenwerper, whose unit has responsibility for Hit.

"There's just been so much murder and intimidation," he said.

Even when a sheik offers help, the Americans have learned to be cautious. Some sheiks claim authority they don't have. Some make promises they don't keep, Marines said.

A sheik functions as a kind of village elder, often receiving payments from members of his tribe.

The insurgency threatens to disrupt long-standing economic arrangements. The Americans try to convince sheiks that the Marines can help them retain their economic position and status.

Allah decided to help the Americans because food supplies for his community were routinely stolen by insurgents.

The U.S. sent his brother to a police academy in Jordan so the man would become part of the police department rather than form a militia.

At the recent meeting at Allah's house, the women of Baghdadi were attentive and apparently eager for more sessions.

McNamara said that in the gatherings she had attended, the women seemed to appreciate having someone listen to them.

The Marines are trying to be culturally sensitive, McNamara said.

"We're not going to tell them, 'Throw off your veils and be free,' " she said. "We're not trying to change their culture."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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