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In Western Iraq, Insurgency Is Gaining

On the other hand, U.S. commanders say few insurgents have shown a willingness to meet with them, much less hold meaningful talks.

The top U.S. commander in Haditha went so far as to ask local leaders to spread the word that Marines wanted to know which reconstruction projects would be safe from sabotage. But insurgents never responded.

"We asked, 'Is there anything we can allow the community to do that won't hurt their political cause?'" Lt. Col. Norm Cooling, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, said.

U.S. troops face similar problems elsewhere in Anbar, a North Carolina-sized province that extends from the western edge of Baghdad to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

In Ramadi, the largest city and provincial capital, several prominent tribal leaders who had approached the military earlier this year were promptly slain. Commanders say several key Sunni leaders have fled to Jordan, Syria, and Egypt.

Even in calmer Fallujah, which remains under tight U.S. and Iraqi control, several prominent leaders have been killed _ including the city council chief, a senior cleric and the deputy police chief. The mayor also recently fled the city.

The war has eroded the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs, many of whom have been steadily abandoning the area. In the cluster of riverside homes that make up Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Parwana, U.S. commanders estimate that about two-thirds of the population have fled their homes since the war began in March 2003.

One government official in Haditha, who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal, said the situation was only getting worse. City council members here won't admit to being part of the government, and officials frequently resign after insurgent threats.

The majority of Iraqi soldiers are Shiite or Kurdish, while young Sunni Arabs make up most of the insurgency. The Americans would like to redress that imbalance and bring more Sunnis into the ranks. But efforts to recruit more Anbar Sunnis into the army have faltered, either because of intimidation by insurgents or genuine support for their cause.

The death last June of al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi appears to have made little dent in support for the terror group. Most of al-Qaida's fighters are Iraqis rather than foreign fighters, U.S. officials say.

In Ramadi, for example, U.S. commanders estimate that a quarter of the fighters are al-Qaida members. In Haditha, Cooling called al-Qaida the most prominent insurgent group in "influence and resources."

Some commanders said the insurgents have grown adept at shifting away from areas targeted by U.S. troops, turning up elsewhere. For example, some Marines attributed a recent spike across the region to increased U.S. military operations in Ramadi.

"It's like pushing on a water balloon, if you will. When you apply pressure to Fallujah, they squirt elsewhere," Cooling said. "Wherever you do not apply a significant amount of pressure, that's where the enemy is going to go."

The U.S. military has pinned its hopes on the development of Iraqi forces. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers have flowed into Anbar over the past year and are expected to soon take over key terrain such as Fallujah.

But commanders say it's a struggle to keep soldiers stationed in Anbar: Thousands have deserted after being given orders here or shortly after arriving.

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© 2006 The Associated Press