RAMADI, Iraq: Sunni merchants watched warily from behind neat stacks of fruit and vegetables as Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno walked with a platoon of bodyguards through the Qatana bazaar here one recent afternoon. At last, one leathery-faced trader glanced furtively up and down the narrow, refuse-strewn street to check who might be listening, then broke the silence.
"America good! Al Qaeda bad!" he said in halting English, flashing a thumb's-up in the direction of the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq.
Until only a few months ago, the Central Street bazaar was enemy territory, watched over by U.S. machine-gunners in sandbagged bunkers on the roof of the governor's building across the road. Ramadi was the most dangerous city in Iraq, and the area around the building the deadliest place in Ramadi.
Now, a pact between local tribal sheiks and U.S. commanders has sent thousands of young Iraqis from Anbar Province into the fight against extremists linked to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The deal has all but ended the fighting in Ramadi and recast the city as a symbol of hope that the tide of the war may yet be reversed to favor the Americans and their Iraqi allies.
In a speech on June 28 at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, President George W. Bush cited the turnaround here and elsewhere in Anbar Province, a vast desert hinterland that accounts for nearly a third of Iraq, as a reason to resist demands from Democrats in Congress for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops.
But Bush's pitch masked some of the crucial questions that still confront U.S. commanders.
Two factors that have led to the astonishing success in Anbar - the Sunnis' dominance of the province and the nature of their foe here - could have the opposite effect elsewhere, especially in Baghdad. There the population is an explosive mix of sects, rather than largely Sunni.
And the Sunnis' fight - explicitly so, in the case of many of the new volunteers - is not just against Qaeda-linked extremists, but ultimately against the U.S. presence here, and beyond that, the new power of the majority Shiites.
The Anbar turnaround developed just as Bush was committing nearly 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq in a bid to regain control of Baghdad and the "belt" areas that surround it. The so-called troop surge reached full strength in mid-June, and the results so far have been mixed. In any case, the Pentagon has told U.S. commanders it can be maintained only until next March at the latest.
This has left commanders looking beyond the surge's end to a point when the trajectory of the war, increasingly, will be determined by decisions the Iraqis make for themselves.
So the question is whether the Anbar experience can be "exported" to other combat zones, as Bush suggested, by arming tribally based local security forces and recruiting thousands of young Sunnis, including former members of Baathist insurgent groups, into Iraq's army and police force.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who leads the Shiite-dominated national government, has backed the tribal outreach in Anbar as a way to strengthen Sunni moderates against Sunni extremists there. But he has warned that replicating the pattern elsewhere could arm Sunni militias for a civil war with Shiites.
Anbar has been a war zone now for four years, and the Americans are as much a part of life as the blasting summer heat.
Ramadi, which lies on the edge of a desert that reaches west from the city to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, had a population of 400,000 in Saddam Hussein's time. That was before the insurgents - a patchwork of Qaeda-linked militants, die-hard loyalists of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party and other resistance groups fighting to oust U.S. forces from Iraq - coalesced in a terrorist campaign that turned much of the city into a ghost town, and much of Anbar into a cauldron for U.S. troops.
Last year, a leaked U.S. Marine intelligence report conceded that the war in Anbar was effectively lost and that the province was on course to becoming the seat of the Islamic militants' plans to establish a new caliphate in Iraq.
The key to turning that around was the shift in allegiance by tribal sheiks. But the sheiks turned only after a prolonged offensive by U.S. and Iraqi forces, starting in November, that put Qaeda groups on the run, in Ramadi and elsewhere across western Anbar.
Not for the first time, the Americans learned a basic lesson of warfare here: that Iraqis, bludgeoned for 24 years by Saddam's terror, are wary of rising against any force, however brutal, until it is in retreat. In Anbar, Sunni extremists were the dominant force, with near-total popular support or acquiescence, until the offensive broke their power.
U.S. infantry, backed by Marine units, have teamed with the Iraqi Army in clearing the extremists from one Ramadi district after another. In February, the extremists were averaging 30 to 35 attacks daily. By late June, the average was down to one a day, and the Americans had counted nearly 50 days with no attacks at all.
Across Anbar, according to figures compiled by the U.S. command, insurgent attacks fell from 1,300 last October to 225 in June. The command says the Ramadi offensive put more than 800 extremists out of action - more than 200 killed or wounded and nearly 600 captured.
U.S. losses in the same period were 19 soldiers and Marines killed, though Iraqi security force casualties were higher. In the wake of their offensive, U.S. and Iraqi units moved out of large bases on Ramadi's outskirts to establish more than 100 smaller posts across the city, most of them in what previously were no-go zones.
Meanwhile, the Americans have revived local government structures and launched a $30 million program - part of a $300 million effort across Anbar - to repair war damage, compensate property owners and finance start-up businesses. Thousands of families have returned to neighborhoods they had abandoned, and house prices have leapt upward, quadrupling in some areas.
"We couldn't go more than 200 meters from this base when I arrived," said Captain Ian Brooks, a Marine officer at one new neighborhood base. "Now, I can walk the streets without any problem."
The change that made all the others possible, U.S. officers say, was the alliance with the sheiks. In Ramadi, 23 tribal leaders approached the Americans and offered to fight the extremists by forming "provincial security battalions," neighborhood police auxiliaries, and by sending volunteers to the Iraqi Army and the police.
Across Anbar, the 3,500 police officers in October jumped to 21,500 by June. In Ramadi, where there were fewer than 100 police officers last year, there are now 3,500.
Many recruits, U.S. officers acknowledge, were previously insurgents. "There's a lot of guys wearing blue shirts out there who were shooting at us last year," Charlton said.
The trend has spread to other areas where U.S. and Iraqi troops are fighting extremists, including the Sunni district of Amariya in Baghdad, where former insurgents have been given arms and ammunition to fight Qaeda-linked groups. Other areas are in Diyala Province, parts of the so-called Triangle of Death south of Baghdad in Babil Province, and parts of Salahuddin and Nineveh, provinces with large Sunni populations north of Baghdad.
U.S. hopes success in Anbar, Iraq can be repeated - Source
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