By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
In recent months, Sunni militants have targeted tribal leaders sympathetic to the U.S. military, assassinating them and their relatives.
"Al-Qaeda doesn't represent Islam," said Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, a tribal leader whose father was killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq. He said hundreds of members of his tribe have joined or plan to join the local police force.
But Sattar and other tribal leaders want dividends for their support of the government, which they feel has long neglected the needs of Anbar. In Tuesday's meeting, they asked Maliki for new provincial elections in Anbar that would give them a political voice, said Sattar. Most Sunni sheiks boycotted the January 2005 elections. They also demanded that Maliki provide more funds to build schools and hospitals and for other projects. Sattar described Maliki's reaction as positive.
"Perhaps this can be the beginning of a Sunni Arab political identity," said Petraeus, "to really gather some mass and momentum in that regard so that they have a bloc or a voice that is not as fragmented as it is has been up till now."
But as Petraeus spoke with Sattar, it was clear that finding Sunni unity would not be easy.
"There are two enemies here. The Iraqi Islamic Party and the terrorists," said Sattar, referring to a Sunni Arab political party that is part of the Maliki government.
"Well, you have to learn to work with the Iraqi Islamic Party," replied Petraeus.
"I can't. They are extremists. They are sectarians," said Sattar.
By midafternoon, Petraeus had been given a frontline tour of Ramadi by soldiers and Marines.
In a convoy, Petraeus first entered an area under the protection of U.S. and Iraqi troops. He passed girls returning from school, and open shops. Soon, the landscape changed.
He drove through apocalyptic scenes of collapsed and shell-pocked buildings. It was difficult to distinguish old wreckage from new.
In a recent three-week operation, U.S. military officials said, U.S. troops had pushed the insurgents farther east and north of Ramadi's center. The violence had dropped by 70 percent, according to their statistics. But on Monday, a suicide bomber wounded 11 in an area under the control of Iraqi and U.S. troops.
"The enemy is trying to regain, to save face," Col. John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, told Petraeus.
As Petraeus left one outpost, Iraqi soldiers approached a Western journalist who spoke Arabic and complained that they hadn't been paid in three months and were getting paid less than their counterparts in Baghdad. Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for Petraeus, said he would look into the matter.
At another neighborhood outpost still under construction, where U.S. soldiers live alongside Iraqi troops, Army Lt. Col. Charles Ferry told Petraeus that they had secured the area in the past 10 days. Now, they were trying to launch projects to rebuild infrastructure and provide basic services to gain the trust of residents. But contractors were too scared to work, Ferry said.
In one neighborhood that was cleared, Petraeus walked through the streets, speaking with residents. One man informed him that U.S. troops had destroyed his shop during a battle. Petraeus asked one of his officers to look into the matter. As he headed back to the convoy, he stopped at a house, spoke a few words in Arabic and, looking at his soldiers, told the family: "Meet your new neighbor."