Has the US Turned Anbar Back to the Locals Too Soon?

Within the Marine Corps there are worries that the U.S. has turned Iraq’s Anbar Province back to the locals too soon and too fast. 

Officers who spoke with HUMAN EVENTS say the Sept. 1 transfer should have been delayed. The Pentagon first needs to fully understand the consequences of Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s ongoing campaign to shut down quasi-official Sunni citizens groups who helped America fight al Qaeda. 

"My biggest concern is the Iraq government is now taking a very hard line against the Sunni ‘awakening’ and the Sons of Iraq," said a Marine officer who did a seven-month tour in Anbar and asked not to be named. "The problem here is, the harder line they take will push the Sunnis back into the insurgency." 

The Sunni “awakening” is the name given to a tribal realignment in Anbar, beginning in 2006, in which sheiks ended an alliance with al-Qaeda terror group and joined forces with U.S. Marines responsible for the province’s security. The Sons of Iraq are groups of Sunnis paid by the U.S. to fight al-Qaeda and other insurgents. Both movements played pivotal roles in the success of a American troops surge of over 30,000 troops in 2007. 

"The Marines were sort of refereeing," the officer said of their role in the predominately-Sunni Anbar. "If that goes away, does it revert back to the potential for civil war? Does it revert back to Shiite police forces rounding up Sunnis. We’ve built stability but  it’s fragile." 

This officer said it is essential that money continues to flow to Anbar from Baghdad to pay young Arab men who might otherwise drift back into the hands of insurgents. 

"If you take that check away, forget the fact their families will starve," the officer said. "What are they going to do with their spare time? They are going to lose face. They are gong to try to save face with a return to violence." 

This officer’s view is not necessarily the majority opinion inside the Corps. 

"I know there is grumbling in some quarters that the commandant just wants to pull Marines out of Anbar in order to go fight in Afghanistan," said a senior intelligence officer. "I’m not so cynical along those lines. If there was still good action to be had in Anbar, Gen. [James] Conway would likely be pushing to stay." 

A senior officer at the headquarters of Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, told HUMAN EVENTS now is the right time to let the Iraqis run Anbar. 

"First and foremost we are not just packing up and leaving Anbar," this officer said. " We are still there and will be for a while.  The Iraqi Security Forces specifically in Anbar along with the Iraqi police have demonstrated for some time that they are capable of performing their missions of security.  They of course will continue to improve and their surge of forces is not yet over as well.  This is something that the Iraqi government wanted and needed to have happen." 

Sam Parker, who runs the Iraq Program Office at the government-funded United States Institute of Peace, said the hand-over came without political peace in Anbar. 

The Sons of Iraq have grown in political power and are at odds with of Iraqi Islamic Party which won the sparsely attended January 2005 elections in Anbar and is part of the Maliki government. 

"A lot of the security in Anbar is provided by the awakening Sons of Iraq and there are political clashes between them and the Iraqi Islamic Party," Parker said. "Even in the hand-over ceremonies they were sniping at each other." 

The change in power also came without any assurances that there will be new provincial elections in Iraq. The Iraqi parliament has yet to agree on a new election law, a stalemate that is denying Sunni outsiders a chance to get their people into power. 

"There are a lot of political questions that are still unresolved," Parker said. "That is the questions I would have in handing over Anbar." 

There is no debate about a stunning turn-around in the vast western province of 1.2 million. It stood in 2003-06 as the most deadly and restive of Iraqi’s 18 provinces. The Marines and Army fought two major battles just to try to secure one city,  Fallujah. Over 1,300 U.S. service members have lost their lives in Anbar, nearly one-third of all American battlefield deaths. 

At one point, al Qaeda and allied tribal fighters controlled the capital, Ramadi, and most small towns. A U.S. Marine intelligence officer reported back to the Pentagon that Anbar was hopelessly lost. 

But al Qaeda’s gruesome methods, and new diplomatic outreach to sheiks by the U.S. command, produced a massive changing of sides. Anbar Sunnis turned on al Qaeda, which is now all but vanquished from the region. 

In June, the Pentagon published its latest quarterly report on the Iraq war. It said security incidents in Anbar had plunged to five a day, a 10-fold decrease. The downturn in violence is so pronounced President Bush made special note of Anbar Sept. 9 when he delivered a major speech on Iraq troop withdrawals. 

"With this transfer of responsibility, the people of Anbar took charge of their own security and their own destiny," he said. "It was a moment of pride for all Iraqis and it was a moment of success in the war on terror."