By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
RAMADI, Iraq, Dec. 12 -- About a half-hour after it began, the meeting on how to improve security in violent Anbar province became a heated argument, with Iraq's defense minister accusing local leaders of turning their territory into a terrorist sanctuary.
"This province has become a safe haven for all the evil people all over the world who come into Iraq," said the minister, Sadoun Dulaimi, who is from Anbar and, like most of the fighters in Iraq's insurgency, a Sunni Muslim. He told the gathering he was speaking "in all honesty, as one of yours, a relative, a son, a brother."
"Terrorism is a virus," he continued. "I plead with you not to open your homes to such evil viruses."
Several locals voiced their dissent as Dulaimi tried to continue, saying he wanted them to be "part of the solution, not part of the problem."
"With all due respect, Mr. Minister," said Saab Rawi, who identified himself as a former major general in the army of ousted president Saddam Hussein, "what you are talking about is imposing a solution on us we do not want." Others shook their heads and said, "No, no, no," as Dulaimi tried to go on with his remarks above the din.
The meeting was the latest in a series of gatherings here between religious and tribal leaders from Iraq's Sunni Arab minority and the U.S. Marines who police the restive province, a vast desert swath west of Baghdad. Like earlier sessions, the meeting was notable for the participants' widely divergent views of how security could best be achieved.
In Ramadi, a war-weary provincial capital of 400,000 that Dulaimi likened to a "ghost town," the police force was disbanded this year after many officers simply stopped showing up for work following a spate of insurgent attacks against them. A provincial police force that the Marines have been working to develop suffered a setback last month when its chief was accused of stealing officers' salaries and arrested.
Held at a fortified government complex in the heart of Ramadi, Monday's meeting began with locals asking the Marines to withdraw from the province's cities and allow them to create a new army division for Anbar, drawn from the local population.
The meeting ended in private. As the debate intensified 45 minutes into the two-hour session, Army Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who had accompanied Dulaimi, asked journalists who had been shuttled to Ramadi by the U.S. Embassy to cover the event to leave the room.
Before the session was closed to reporters, Dulaimi, a member of one of the province's most prominent tribes, said he was saddened by the recent news that a woman from Anbar had been among the group that bombed hotels in Amman, Jordan, last month.
"I was hoping to hear a condemnation from this council of the woman who violated the honor of the province," he said. "And I was also hoping to hear a condemnation that to shed the innocent blood of Muslims is a sin."
He rejected the local leaders' demand for a new army unit for the province. U.S. policymakers have said they hope to withdraw troops from cities when Iraqi forces are ready to take over and a suitable level of security is achieved.
"There is already an army division here in Anbar," he continued, referring to the 7th Iraqi Army Division. "We welcome all those who wish to join."
Most of the soldiers in the division come from Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, rivals of the Sunnis. People have long bemoaned its presence here alongside U.S. Marines.
Members of the 7th Division's 1st Brigade, natives of Shiite cities such as Basra and Nasiriyah, as well as Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in northern Baghdad, voted Monday at their base in Ramadi because they will spend election day, Thursday, patrolling the city.
Gathered outside a barracks being used as a polling station, soldiers quickly turned the occasion into a rally for the Shiite religious parties that govern Iraq and are widely forecast to gain the largest share of votes in the parliamentary elections.
Dozens danced in a large circle chanting, "555 are the elegant leaders," a reference to the numerical designation of the Shiite religious slate. Some had posters bearing the image of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr stuck on their chests or fastened to the end of raised AK-47 assault rifles.
"Anyone who does not vote 555 is not one of us," one platoon sang as members waited in line to vote.
"You can't ignore the fact that sectarianism is a problem here," acknowledged Brig. Gen. James L. Williams, commander of the 2nd Marine Division, which oversees Anbar.
At the conclusion of the security meeting Monday afternoon, the parties decided to convene again, after the election, according to Abed Mohammed Jumayli, secretary of the committee of local leaders.