Maliki, Petraeus Visit Insurgent Hotbed in Iraq
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
RAMADI, Iraq, March 13 -- For months in this battered city, Sunni Muslim militants took over mosques and used their loudspeakers to broadcast propaganda. So a few weeks ago, U.S. soldiers went to the local market, bought speakers and placed them on a tall, white tower inside their base.
Then they began trying to woo the population with messages from the mayor and local sheiks. The Americans spliced in verses from the Koran, the Iraqi national anthem and the news, and even threw in the latest European scores in soccer, a sport loved by most Iraqis.
"This is good counterinsurgency stuff right here," said Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. general in Iraq, standing near the tower on Tuesday.
There was no indication whether such tactics have achieved much success, but Petraeus had succeeded in persuading Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to visit a U.S. military base here, his first foray to volatile Anbar province in nine months as Iraq's leader. Maliki was there to show that the Shiite-led central government cared about those outside the capital regardless of their sect, Petraeus said.
The visits Tuesday illustrated the multi-pronged approach -- melding military, political and economic measures -- that U.S. military leaders say is vital for the success of a four-week-old security plan to tame Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. But the visits to this Sunni insurgent stronghold also displayed some of the challenges confronting the strategy, such as intra-sectarian rivalries and deep-rooted insecurity.
"Ramadi has been under siege, has been out of control for several years," Petraeus said. "This is early days in this particular effort."
Ramadi and other parts of Anbar have experienced some of the fiercest fighting since the U.S-led invasion of 2003. Of the 3,192 U.S. service members killed in Iraq, about 950 died in the province. Dozens of schools and hospitals have shut down; basic services such as electricity are luxuries. Sunni extremists, including the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, have entrenched themselves in Ramadi, engaging in pitched battles against U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.
Maliki and Petraeus flew together from Baghdad in a convoy of Black Hawk helicopters. Upon landing, Petraeus exited from one side and Maliki stepped out the other to a crush of welcoming officials and cameramen. While Petraeus met his soldiers and ventured into the center of Ramadi, Maliki stayed under heavy security on the U.S. military base, Camp Blue Diamond, and held meetings inside a palace built by Saddam Hussein.
Petraeus had urged Maliki to fly to Ramadi, said Marine Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin, the top U.S. commander in Anbar, who recalled what Petraeus had told the Iraqi leader: " 'You've visited Iran, and you haven't visited Anbar. You need to come and visit your folks.' He responded to that positively," recalled Gaskin.
In closed meetings, Maliki promised to improve electricity services, rebuild the war-shattered infrastructure and compensate residents for property damaged in battles or by insurgent attacks, Iraqi state television reported.
Maliki also met with Sunni tribal sheiks who came from across the vast western province, stretching from Baghdad to the borders with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Many of the sheiks have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni militants and aligned themselves with U.S. forces and the Iraqi government. The U.S. military has been courting the tribal leaders, many of whom were once sympathetic to the Sunni insurgency, to break with al-Qaeda in Iraq.