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Some doubt whether Anbar's success is a model for Iraq

September 10, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

RAMADI, IRAQ — The mood was celebratory. Dozens of tribal sheiks clad in traditional finery gathered for a feast after the central government promised $120 million to help Anbar province recover from years of fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents.

An Iraqi government official watching the scene last week marveled at how the Sunni Arab leaders who once backed insurgent groups had banded together to get their province to this point.

"The next big step is when the same kind of cooperation occurs between the Sunnis and the Shiites," he said wryly as cheeks were kissed and fingers were plunged into communal platters of rice and roasted meat. "That's a different story."

His comments illustrated the different prisms through which Anbar's metamorphosis can be viewed. The western province that once was the hub of the Sunni insurgency is now a region of relative stability. It is likely to be featured in a progress report that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, is due to give today to Congress.

But is it an example of what can be achieved if President Bush's military strategy continues? Or should it be regarded as a reminder of how difficult it will be to make similar gains elsewhere? Military and political leaders warn against resting hopes for all of Iraq on this province, where U.S. forces are empowering, and even arming, the people who once fought them.

Some say that the strategy could backfire by spawning new militias that in the long term might wreak more havoc on the country. They also warn that the situation here still could slide backward if the Shiite-dominated central government does not live up to its promises of support for the province's Sunni Arab leadership, such as the $120-million package.

"There are too many unique variables," said Maj. Jeff Pool, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Anbar, when asked if what has happened in that region could be replicated.

"It's not exporting this model here that will solve Iraq's problems," Pool said. "It's local leaders elsewhere finding out what works in their areas."

That requires local leaders to join forces as Anbar's leaders have done, but this will be challenging in areas that are not as homogenous and don't face the singular threat that galvanized Anbar's sheiks: the influence of Islamic militant groups claiming allegiance to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

"It's harder for them to buy into the idea of working with the coalition in other areas because they have other threats: Shiite threats, Kurdish influence," said Maj. Ed Sullivan, who is on his second deployment in Anbar. He was first here in 2004-05.

"A lot of people look for a cookie-cutter theory -- the Anbar model. There is no Anbar model," Sullivan said. Rather, a unique combination of events ushered in change.

In 2004-05, the province was the heart of the Sunni-led insurgency and one of the deadliest for U.S. forces in Iraq. Locals were more supportive of the militants than the foreign forces. That changed in 2006, when Islamic militants declared the province part of their self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, and began imposing harsh laws and brutal punishment for violators and opponents of their rule.

This drove the sheiks, who saw their local economies dying and their influence waning, to reject the Al Qaeda-linked militants and cooperate with U.S. and Iraqi forces.

"If it weren't for that, we would've been forcing them," Sullivan said. "It wouldn't have worked."

Nearly 6,000 U.S. troops are spread across Anbar, including 4,000 sent as part of Bush's deployment this year of an additional 28,500 troops nationwide. Supporters of the strategy say the extra troops have made it possible for the province to remain stable in the wake of the sheiks' decision, putting it on the path to long-term recovery.

According to the military, daily attacks in the provincial capital, Ramadi, have dropped from an average of nearly 30 a day to fewer than one per day. Last year, Anbar accounted for 43% of all U.S. troop deaths in Iraq. So far this year, it has accounted for about 20%, according to

In other parts of the country, the Anbar strategy is being applied in varying degrees.

There are neighborhood watch groups in parts of Baghdad. In Diyala, the Baqubah Guardians are patrolling the streets of the provincial capital, a former militant stronghold. All of these groups comprise former insurgents who have switched allegiance to U.S. and Iraqi forces. If they pass security checks, they are trained and allowed to take up law enforcement roles.

U.S. commanders in Diyala say the Guardians are helping turn around Baqubah, a city that was largely in insurgent hands at the beginning of the year. They man checkpoints in their khaki T-shirts and reflective belts and have taken over abandoned houses, which they use as patrol bases.

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