U.S. hands back a quieter Anbar Province
By Dexter Filkins
Monday, September 1, 2008
RAMADI, Iraq: Two years ago, Anbar Province was the most lethal place for American forces in Iraq. A U.S. marine or soldier died in the province nearly every day, and the provincial capital, Ramadi, was a moonscape of rubble and ruins. Islamic extremists controlled large pieces of territory, with some so ferocious in their views that they did not even allow the baking of bread.
On Monday, U.S. commanders formally returned responsibility for keeping order in Anbar Province, once the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, to the Iraqi Army and police. The ceremony, including a parade on a freshly paved street, capped one of the most significant turnabouts in the country since the war began five and a half years ago.
Over the past two years, the number of insurgent attacks against Iraqis and Americans has dropped by more than 90 percent. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has been severely degraded, if not crushed altogether, in large part because many local Sunnis, including former insurgents, have taken up arms against it.
Since February, as the security situation improved, U.S. commanders have cut the number of marines and soldiers operating in the province by 40 percent.
The transfer of authority codified a situation that Iraqi and American officers say has been in effect since April: The Iraqi Army and police operate independently and retain primary responsibility for battling the insurgency and crime in Anbar. The United States, which had long done the bulk of the fighting, has stepped into a backup role, going into the streets only when accompanied by Iraqi forces.
But the dynamic that has brought such calm to Anbar, welcome as it is, seems fragile. Many former insurgents now man the local police forces, or remain on the U.S. payroll as loosely supervised gunmen working for the so-called Sunni Awakening Councils.
But with most of the Sunni population having abstained from voting in 2005, many are now claiming that the present arrangement leaves them unrepresented. Local Sunni leaders have warned that provincial elections must go forward if violence is to be averted.
Still, as the parade marched along Ramadi's Main Street on Monday, the signs were mostly good. The ceremony was a primarily Iraqi affair, with the U.S. marines wearing neither helmets nor body armor, nor carrying guns. The festive scene became an occasion for celebration by Iraqis and Americans, who at several moments wondered aloud in the sweltering heat how things had gone from so grim to so much better, so fast.
"Not in our wildest dreams could we have imagined this," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser, who flew in from Baghdad. "Two or three years ago, had we suggested that the Iraqis could take responsibility, we would have been ridiculed, we would have been laughed at. This was the cradle of the Sunni insurgency."
Indeed it was. Anbar Province became the most intractable region after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. More than 1,000 American marines and soldiers have died in the province, a quarter of the total U.S. toll.
Anbar's second city, Falluja, was the scene of the biggest battle of the war, in which nearly 100 Americans died and more than 500 were wounded.
Bordering on three countries, Anbar was also considered the primary transit point for foreigners entering Iraq.
The fighting devastated much of Anbar. Falluja, a city of 250,000, was razed, and large parts of Ramadi, a city of 500,000, were reduced to ruins.
By the summer of 2006, insurgents had tried to kill Anbar's governor, Mamoon Sami al-Rashid, 29 times. They failed with Rashid, but that was an exception. Rashid's immediate predecessor, Raja Nawaf, was kidnapped and murdered. His deputy, Talib al-Dulaimi, was shot and killed. The chairman of the Anbar provincial council was also murdered. Rashid's personal secretary was beheaded and most of his ministers went into hiding.
What finally broke the stalemate, according to former insurgents and local leaders, was a local revolt against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the radical insurgent group believed to be led primarily by foreigners. As the group began to expand its goals beyond killing Americans to include sectarian assassinations and imposing a fundamentalist Islam, local tribal leaders struck back and reached out for help to U.S. forces. The "Sunni Awakening" was born, and it soon spread across the Sunni areas of Iraq.
Saadi al-Faraji used to be a gunman for a local group called the Islamic Movement of Holy Warriors, which focused mainly on attacking Americans. Then, in 2006, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia tried to take over his group and force them to kill Iraqis who worked for the government, including police officers.
"Qaeda declared that we were apostates, and they demanded our heads, because we would not kill Iraqi soldiers or Iraqi police," Faraji said.
The Islamic Movement of Holy Warriors began attacking Qaeda fighters at about the same time that a local Sunni sheik named Abdul Sattar abu Risha struck a deal with the Americans and formed the first Awakening Council. The Islamic Movement formed its own Awakening Council, and today, Faraji is a colonel in the Iraqi police.
As for his view on Americans, Faraji said they had evolved.
"They made mistakes, and so did we," he said. "The past is past."
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