Anbar at tipping point, but U.S. support falters

Town leaders commit to American forces, look for aid to rebuild

May 29, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq -- Once the most violence-racked region of Iraq, much of Anbar has become a relatively peaceful haven, ripe for the kind of economic development and political reform that has been the most noble and pressing U.S. goal for the nation it invaded four years ago.

About 200 local Iraqi leaders in the dusty Euphrates River towns that stretch more than a hundred miles west of Baghdad have thrown in their lot with U.S. forces, risking their lives to stand against terrorists and insurgents. Having won a respite from the terror, now they are eager for U.S. assistance in rebuilding.

It is a fragile moment, senior military officers say. But the help the United States has vowed to provide is nowhere in sight.

Five months ago, President Bush announced a "surge" of troops to Iraq and promised the sustained, targeted economic and social assistance that he acknowledged is the critical component of the counterinsurgency plan. But not until May 15 did the White House appoint a senior official to jump-start that assistance.

"This is the time to take advantage of the security situation," said Marine Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin, who commands all military forces here in western Iraq. "What keeps me awake at night is, will we sustain the commitment for economic stability?"

One place waiting with high hopes is a collection of poor villages, nestled in bright green groves of date palm trees along the Euphrates River, known as Baghdadi.

Here, a short, stocky man named Mal Alla Barzan Hamraim has big plans, including a women's center that can help the poor, unemployed and often oppressed. He is convinced: Give people security and a stake in the future, and peace will follow.

"We have 700 war widows here and a lot of unemployment," said Mal Alla, who has an infectious grin and eight children, down to 7-month-old Fatima, a cherub with thick brown curls and wide brown eyes.

At 42, Mal Alla is a powerful tribal sheik, the elected chairman of the Baghdadi City Council and a fast-rising politician.

"Because of the war, many households are run by women, so I decided women should take part in solving this problem," he said. "We should have physical education, cooking and hairdressing classes, motherhood, literacy."

To date, help has come from local donations and the efforts of the wife of a Marine officer serving here. From Uncle Sam: zero.

Mal Alla works out of a tidy office, often until 2 a.m. with a pistol stuck in his waistband. He has survived several assassination attempts. A brother was shot dead by insurgents. Last fall, a bomb blast outside Mal Alla's office tore off the legs of his youngest brother, a handsome boy of 17 who now gets around in a wheelchair.

After the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein four years ago, vicious resistance to U.S. forces spread across the desert stretches and scattered cities of Anbar province. That struggle came to be dominated by the radical Islamist movement known as al-Qaida in Iraq, which sought to muscle out the traditional tribal sheiks.

Three years ago, al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents attacked the home of Mal Alla with a barrage of automatic rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Mal Alla's grandmother and mother were injured. His brother fought until the insurgents withdrew, and the family fled into the dark. Hours later, the insurgents returned, planted explosives in the house and detonated them.

"My brother, may God bless him, fought them off," said Mal Alla. But he returned the next day to find his house in rubble. "I thought my family was gone."

The violence persuaded many of Mal Alla's fellow sheiks to stop fighting U.S. Marines and instead join them in common cause against al-Qaida in Iraq, in a movement they call "the Awakening." The violence intensified.

Mal Alla and his brother narrowly escaped death when insurgents opened fire on their car. A bounty was put on their heads. "If I had known they were offering that much, I'd have turned me in myself," he joked. After his brother joined the Iraqi national police force, he was gunned down in an ambush.

In March, a Marine battalion arrived to stay in Baghdadi, led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Christmas, 39, an energetic idealist determined to win a future for the children of Baghdadi.

"He said, `Give me 10 days and I will clean the insurgents out,'" Mal Alla recalls. "And he did."

As the Marines put out aggressive patrols, 39 rockets rained down on the low cement building that houses Mal Alla's office. The Marines arrested dozens and uncovered many weapons caches. Now, apart from an occasional IED attack, things are quiet.

The Awakening movement has recruited 1,925 Iraqis for the Iraqi police and army, more than the Marines can help train. Forty- one Iraqi army troops share an austere compound with Christmas' headquarters, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment.

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