Marine General: Anbar Getting Better

The Associated Press
Monday, April 9, 2007; 5:28 PM

OVER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN -- The long U.S. effort to stabilize western Iraq, a hotbed of the Sunni Arab insurgency, has reached a turning point with new prospects for success, the top Marine general said Monday.

"I think, in that area, we have turned the corner," Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, said in an Associated Press interview as he flew back to Washington after four days in Iraq.

His assessment of Anbar province marks a sharp departure from the view that prevailed for much of the past four years, a time of deadly battles with the Sunni insurgency and of local alienation from the Shiite-dominated national government in Baghdad.

As recently as last fall, the top Marine intelligence officer in Anbar reported dim prospects for securing the province and little likelihood of the U.S. military persuading the Sunnis _ who lost national power when Saddam Hussein fell _ to quit the insurgency.

Conway also said in the in-flight interview that the Marine Corps is studying how it could sustain into 2008 the higher troops levels that President Bush ordered in January. He said it was likely that five Marine Reserve infantry battalions that already have served in Iraq would be remobilized and sent again.

Of about 35,000 U.S. troops in Anbar, about 25,000 are Marines.

There is still much violence in the province.

Last Friday, while Conway was in Iraq, a suspected al-Qaida in Iraq suicide bomber driving a truck loaded with TNT and toxic chlorine gas crashed into a police checkpoint in the provincial capital of Ramadi, killing at least 27 people and wounding dozens, police said.

And two days earlier, gunmen abducted 22 Shiite shepherds who were tending thousands of sheep and had wandered into the area.

Three U.S. troops were reported to have died in the province during the week.

Still, on his visit Conway was told by numerous American commanders throughout Anbar that the tide had shifted against the extremist group al-Qaida in Iraq when Sunni tribal sheiks who previously opposed U.S. forces decided to start cooperating instead.

Some commanders said the extremists' key misstep was to interfere with the locals' black market trading, which al-Qaida co-opted in order to finance itself. Anbar stretches west from Baghdad to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

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