By ANTONIO CASTANEDA
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 16, 2006; 9:47 AM
HADITHA, Iraq -- In the dusty plains of western Iraq, al-Qaida is gaining strength. Daily attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces are on the rise, and there is little sign of progress in persuading the population to support the national government. U.S. commanders acknowledge they are locked in struggle with insurgents for the allegiance of Iraq's youth.
"We're in a recruiting war with the insurgency," said Brig. Gen. Robert Neller, the deputy Marine commander in western Iraq.
U.S. commanders have said privately that a military solution to the insurgency in Anbar is impossible, and what's needed is a political deal between the Sunni Arabs and the other religious and ethnic communities.
"This country needs a political solution _ not a military solution," one government worker told Marines who stopped by his home in Haditha. "Are we going to stay in this situation where you shoot them, they shoot you? We are the victims."
American attention has shifted in recent weeks to Baghdad, where violence between Sunni and Shiite extremists is on the rise. The U.S. is sending nearly 12,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces to the capital to curb the violence.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has said tbat sectarian violence in the capital is now a greater threat to Iraq's stability than the Sunni Arab insurgency, which is entrenched in western Iraq.
Nevertheless, of the 23 U.S. troops who have died this month in Iraq, 16 were in Anbar.
The situation in Anbar, with its heavily Sunni population, is a barometer for the entire Sunni Arab minority, which lost its favored position to the majority Shiites and the Kurds when Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed in 2003.
As long as the insurgency rages here, it is unlikely that Sunni Arab politicians in Baghdad can win over significant numbers of Sunnis to support the government of national unity, which took office May 20.
Some areas in Anbar have shown significant progress, such as the border city of Qaim, once an al-Qaida stronghold. Trouble has increased in other areas, like the rural stretch between Ramadi and Fallujah.
In Baghdad, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Wednesday that al-Qaida was making a concerted effort to gain legitimacy by promoting itself as a credible organization.
The terror network "appeals to Iraqis in desperate social and economic situations while projecting a civic-minded image," he said, adding that al-Qaida was seeking to build support "from whole tribes rather than individual Iraqi citizens."
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.