By ROBERT BURNS
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.
The new cooperation has enabled U.S. forces in recent months to clear extremist elements from even the most violent areas, including Ramadi, and to put more Iraqi forces on the streets, Conway was told. Cooperation by the sheiks also has quickly created a Sunni police force in areas where none existed before.
Conway, dressed in his desert flight suit, noted that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cautioned against "happy talk" about short-term improvements in Iraq that might not be sustained.
"I was guardedly optimistic in December," before Bush ordered an extra 21,500 American combat troops to Iraq, including 4,000 Marines to Anbar province, Conway said. Four months later he said he sees a decisively improved situation in Anbar, adding, "That's not too optimistic or too much `happy talk.'"
Conway's weeklong trip took him from one end of the province to the other, and to Baghdad for meetings with the top U.S. commanders and Iraqi defense officials.
Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army general who has been a critic of the Bush administration's approach to the war, wrote in an assessment for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point after visiting Iraq last month that he found in Anbar a "real and growing groundswell of Sunni tribal opposition" to al-Qaida in Iraq.
"This is a crucial struggle and it is going our way _ for now," McCaffrey wrote.
Conway noted that if Anbar is getting better, that does not necessarily translate to success in Baghdad, where the situation is more complicated with sectarian violence that does not exist in Sunni-dominated Anbar.
A veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, Conway was the senior Marine in the initial U.S. invasion in March 2003, and he returned to command Marines in Anbar in March 2004 as the insurgency gained momentum. Even that far back, he said, there was a concerted effort to turn the Sunni sheiks against the insurgent groups associated with al-Qaida and other extremists whose attacks killed Iraqi civilians.
"The message has been the same the whole time," he said. "Suddenly they are responding to it. We used to say, `Why do you allow these foreigners to come in and kill your women and children? Where are you, the men of Iraq? Why do you allow that to happen?' We just couldn't get a response."
The response now in places like Qaim, a Euphrates River town on the Syrian border, is to strike back against the extremists, to move toward local Iraqi control of policing duties and to work with U.S. forces. That does not mean Qaim is fully secure or that U.S. officials are certain the trend will continue.
The indications of improvement in Anbar are not uniform. In Rutbah, a town of about 20,000 people 100 miles east of the border with Jordan, al-Qaida is still able to intimidate the local population against fully cooperating with U.S. forces. The town has no mayor, and there are fewer than 10 Iraqi soldiers _ and no Iraqi police _ on duty. Forty newly trained police are due this month.
Conway said he was encouraged to hear from Brig. Gen. John Allen, the No. 2 Marine commander in western Iraq, that he has begun bringing together international businessmen and Iraqi government representatives to discuss investment prospects in resource-poor Anbar, including possible oil exploration deals.
"Possibly we're on the verge of something very important there," Conway said.
If Conway's upbeat interpretation of recent developments in Anbar proves correct it will raise questions about the intelligence assessments last summer and fall of Col. Peter Devlin, who was the top intelligence officer at Marine headquarters in Anbar. Devlin reported that the political and security situation was grim and getting worse, and he said there was almost nothing the U.S. military could do to stop the insurgency.
"I think Colonel Devlin was wrong," Conway said in the interview.