U.S. Debate on Pullout Resonates As Troops Engage Sunnis in Talks

The governor of Anbar province, Mamoun Sami Rashid Alwani, left, with Nasir Abdul Karim, a tribal leader in Iraq.
The governor of Anbar province, Mamoun Sami Rashid Alwani, left, with Nasir Abdul Karim, a tribal leader in Iraq. (By Omar Fekeiki For The Washington Post)
By Ellen Knickmeyer, Jonathan Finer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 30, 2005

RAMADI, Iraq, Nov. 29 -- Outside Ramadi's city auditorium, the mortar rounds fell, two, then three, each rattling the concrete walls slightly. Inside, locked in an intense debate about what it would take for American troops in Iraq to withdraw, none of the camouflaged Marines or robed Sunni Arab tribal leaders even flinched.

"We all want the withdrawal," Nasir Abdul Karim, leader of Anbar province's Albu Rahad tribe, told scores of the armed Marines and Sunni sheiks, clerical leaders and other elders at the gathering Monday in Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad. "We all believe it is an illegitimate occupation, and it is a legitimate resistance."

"We're committed to withdrawing," responded Brig. Gen. James L. Williams of the 2nd Marine Division, "as soon as we have strong units" in the Iraqi army to replace U.S.-led forces. "I understand the resistance," Williams added, commenting later that he was referring to the peaceful opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq. "But you must understand we're military people. People who are shot at will shoot back."

The spirited exchange in Ramadi came at the largest meeting yet between those suspected of supporting the Iraqi insurgency and the U.S. forces battling them. The comments by the tribal leaders, and similar remarks to reporters Tuesday in Fallujah, 30 miles away, offered fresh evidence of how the debate in the United States about pulling out troops is also echoing through Iraq. President Bush is expected to address growing public sentiment for withdrawal in a speech Wednesday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Nowhere is support for a U.S. military exit stronger than in Anbar province in western Iraq, heart of the Sunni insurgency, where fighters control whole communities along the Euphrates River, and where money and materiel flow in from neighboring Syria. Elsewhere in Iraq, many people who resent the U.S. presence say they fear factional struggles and upheaval if the U.S. troops leave too quickly. But in Anbar cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah, the calls for a pullout are enthusiastically applauded.

"The people of Fallujah love Cindy Sheehan," declared Farouk Abd-Muhammed, a candidate for National Assembly in Dec. 15 elections, referring to the mother of a slain Marine who became a U.S. antiwar activist. He spoke Tuesday at a pre-election meeting of local leaders in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, scene of the largest U.S. offensive of the war in November 2004.

Abd-Muhammed described watching recent television reports with his family showing Americans waving banners that read "Stop the war in Iraq."

"I salute the American people because we know after watching them on satellite that they are ready to leave," Abd-Muhammed said.

"We know that there are now voices, even in the Congress, that want America to leave Iraq as soon as possible," said Fawzi Muhammed, an engineer who is the deputy chairman of Fallujah's reconstruction committee. "It makes us feel very happy and comfortable because it is the only solution to the problems in Iraq."

Unlike Fallujah -- seen now by some U.S. commanders as a model of cooperation between Sunni leaders and the military -- people in Ramadi appear to know comparatively little of the debate in the United States over the war. Fighting here, including insurgent bomb attacks, knocked out most of the provincial capital's communications to the outside world, and U.S. forces were able to restore a vital fiber-optics cable only this month.

But the distrust -- and the disconnect -- between the U.S. forces and the Iraqis here runs strong. Sunday, the day before the meeting, was the first "zero casualty" day the city had experienced in some time, Williams said.

Heavy fighting, and a heavy U.S. presence to try to curb it, have left the city a bombed-out, weed-overgrown, deserted wasteland. As observers arrived for the meeting, Marines prodded them to run from the government building to the nearby meeting hall, fearing that bullets or mortar rounds would make it over the blast walls.

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