AP ANALYSIS: Bush-Anbar Is a Success
Monday September 3, 2007 9:31 PM
By ROBERT BURNS
AP Military Writer
AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AP) - By assembling his war advisers and Iraq's political leaders far from Baghdad on Monday, President Bush symbolically underscored U.S. impatience with the central government's political paralysis.
And he highlighted his hope that progress at the local level - most notably here in Anbar province where the insurgency once held sway - can provide the spark for political reconciliation at the national level.
Bush flew to this remote desert air base and met with top politicians from Baghdad as well as leading Sunni Arab sheiks who have led a local movement opposing al-Qaida in Iraq. He was joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other key advisers, including the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, and Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in the country.
The setting was the message: Bringing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to the heart of the overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province was intended to show the administration's war critics that the beleaguered Iraqi leader is capable of reaching out to Sunnis, who ran the country for three decades under Saddam Hussein.
``In Anbar you're seeing firsthand the dramatic differences that can come when the Iraqis are more secure,'' Bush told U.S. troops, a friendly sea of soldiers and Marines dressed in camouflage uniforms. ``You see Sunnis who once fought side by side with al-Qaida against coalition troops now fighting side by side with coalition troops against al-Qaida.''
Anbar, a desert province that starts at the western gates of Baghdad, ``was once written off as lost. It is now one of the safest places in Iraq,'' the president said to loud cheers.
That assertion is part of Bush's push to sell Anbar as a success story and to hold it up to his congressional critics as a reason why the troop buildup should not be cut short.
In truth, the progress in Anbar was initiated by the Iraqis themselves, a point Gates himself made, saying the Sunni tribes decided to fight and retake control from al-Qaida many months before Bush decided to send an extra 4,000 Marines to Anbar as part of his troop buildup.
``We have seen the fruit of that effort become more apparent in the last few months,'' Gates said. In their meeting with Bush here, the local Sunni sheiks were explicit, however, he added, ``that it was the presence of the additional U.S. forces - the Marines that came in - that helped cement the gains they felt they had made but were at risk.''
Amid growing war fatigue in the United States, time is running short for Bush to show that his revised strategy for stabilizing Iraq, announced last January, is making progress that can be translated into sustainable security and some tangible steps toward reconciling the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
Iraqi leaders in Baghdad have fallen far short of the security and political progress that many in Congress are demanding as justification to continue a U.S. combat effort that now involves 160,000 troops and already had taken more than 3,730 U.S. lives.
In an Iraq assessment released last month, the major U.S. intelligence agencies said ``bottom-up'' security initiatives, like those occurring in Anbar, represent the best prospect for security improvements over the next six to 12 months.
But the intelligence assessment also said these moves will translate into widespread political accommodation and enduring stability only if Baghdad's central government accepts and supports them.
That was a main motivation for bringing al-Maliki to Monday's meeting at Al-Asad Air Base, which is the primary U.S. military base in Anbar province.
``Such initiatives, if not fully exploited by the Iraqi government, could over time also shift greater power to the regions, undermine efforts to impose central authority, and reinvigorate armed opposition to the Baghdad government,'' the intelligence assessment said.
The worry for al-Maliki and his Shiite supporters is that localized movements in which former Sunni insurgent groups are teaming up with U.S. forces against Sunni extremists could later target Shiite dominance.
Gates, normally taciturn, said this visit to Anbar left him with great hope because he felt there was a ``sense of shared purpose'' displayed at Bush's meeting with the local sheiks from Anbar and Iraqi national leaders. Although, he added, there was ``good-natured jousting'' among them about the national government's sharing of resources with Anbar.
``I am more optimistic than I have been at any time since I took this job,'' said Gates, a former CIA chief who in December replaced Donald H. Rumsfeld, who resigned under fire.
Still, Gates said, it will take the administration several months to assess whether security improvements across the country are sufficient to enable Bush to start withdrawing troops.
It's far from clear, however, that Anbar will prove to be a model for other parts of Iraq - mostly because Sunnis dominate and tribes are strong and there's less of a sectarian factor.
Administration officials are fond of recalling that one year ago the Marine Corps intelligence chief in Anbar concluded that, in essence, the region was a lost cause in the absence of real support by the central government. At the time administration officials downplayed that assessment by Col. Pete Devlin, but now they cite it as a measure of how far Anbar has come in reducing violence and creating hope.
The provincial capital of Ramadi was, as recently as last year, a main stronghold of the insurgency. Today it is relatively peaceful but in need of reconstruction aid and economic revitalization.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Robert Burns has been covering military and national security affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.