Violence ebbing in Anbar

Relative calm, fragile and uneasy, settles over one-time heartland of Sunni resistance

April 29, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

RAMADI, Iraq -- Anbar province, long the lawless heartland of the tenacious Sunni Arab resistance, is undergoing a surprising transformation. Violence is ebbing in many areas, shops and schools are reopening, police forces are growing, and the insurgency appears to be in retreat.

"Many people are challenging the insurgents," said the governor of Anbar, Maamoon S. Rahid, though he quickly added, "We know we haven't eliminated the threat 100 percent."

Many Sunni tribal leaders, once openly hostile to the American presence, have formed a united front with American and Iraqi government forces against al-Qaida in Iraq. With the tribal leaders' encouragement, thousands of local residents have joined the police force. About 10,000 police officers are in Anbar, up from several thousand a year ago. During the same period, the police force here in Ramadi, the provincial capital, has grown from fewer than 200 to about 4,500, American military officials say.

At the same time, American and Iraqi forces have been conducting sweeps of insurgent strongholds, particularly in and around Ramadi, leaving behind a network of police stations and military garrisons.

Yet for all the indications of a heartening turnaround in Anbar, the situation, as it appeared during more than a week with American troops in Ramadi and Fallujah in early April, is at best uneasy and fragile.

Municipal services remain a wreck; local governments, while reviving, are still barely functioning; and years of fighting have damaged much of Ramadi.

The insurgency in Anbar - a mix of Islamic militants, former Baathists and recalcitrant tribesmen - still thrives among the province's overwhelmingly Sunni population, killing American and Iraqi security forces and civilians. (This was underscored by three suicide car-bomb attacks in Ramadi on April 23 and 24, in which at least 15 people were killed and 47 were wounded, American officials said.)

Furthermore, some American officials readily acknowledge that they have entered an uncertain marriage of convenience with the tribes, some of whom were involved in the insurgency, to one extent or another.

These sudden changes have raised questions about the loyalties of the United States' new allies. "One day they're laying IEDs; the next they're police collecting a paycheck," said Lt. Thomas R. Mackesy, an adviser to an Iraqi army unit in Juwayba, east of Ramadi, referring to improvised explosive devices.

Still, the progress comes after years of fruitless efforts to drive a wedge between moderate resistance fighters and those, like al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, who seem beyond compromise.

"There are some people who would say we've won the war out here," said Col. John. A. Koenig, a planning officer for the Marines who oversees governing and development issues in Anbar. "I'm cautiously optimistic as we're going forward."

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