US commanders welcome Fallujah revival

February 9, 2008 6:09:33 PM PST
Women shrouded in black shop for gold jewelry and fabric. Young boys tote trays of tea. The smell of tangerines wafts through the air. This is Fallujah 2008 - a former insurgent stronghold that U.S. commanders now hold up as an example for the rest of Iraq. But a simmering provincial power struggle is threatening to raise new tensions among the fractured Sunni tribal chiefs and politicians of Anbar that some fear could distract them from the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq.

Anbar province was the stronghold of the insurgency that mobilized in the months after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion routed Saddam Hussein. Some of the bloodiest fighting of the war took place in Fallujah, the heart of the anti-American resistance until American troops stormed the city in November 2004.

The Euphrates River city, 40 miles west of Baghdad, remained a virtual prison and rebuilding was slow to take hold after the U.S. Marines clamped down on the perimeter and continued to face fierce fighting with insurgents.

That changed last year when Sunni tribal leaders joined forces with the Americans to deprive al-Qaida of sanctuaries and force the militants to flee or go into hiding. The so-called awakening movement has since spread to Baghdad and surrounding areas but nowhere has it been more widely successful at quelling the violence than in Anbar.

The military acknowledges al-Qaida and its trademark bombings remain a threat in the area, and attacks continue. A teenager blew himself up during a gathering of tribal members near Fallujah on Jan. 20, killing six people after using his tribal connections to penetrate tight security.

But Fallujans were all smiles on Saturday as the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, strolled helmetless through the central bazaar in the city. He stopped to drink tea and chat with vendors in a maze of stalls peddling everything from fruit to patterned rugs, most imported from Syria.

He heard some complaints about services and restricted access to the city of some 400,000 people. A line of cars and minibuses a half-mile long waited at the main checkpoint at the edge of the city on Saturday. Trucks enter at a separate post so their loads can be scanned.

The general smiled and said that was the price for security, but the military was working to improve the situation.

Abdul-Rahman Muhsin, a 42-year-old clothes vendor in the Fallujah market, said the turning point came when Americans began allowing residents to maintain one weapon at home.

"This overdue measure helped the people to defend themselves," he said. "Now, whenever we see al-Qaida attacking our neighbor, we don't have stand watching from the sidelines but we can all fight al-Qaida together."

With a measure of peace restored in Anbar, long-standing tribal rivalries have begun to resurface as a draft law laying out a timeline for new provincial elections is stalled in the national parliament. Many Sunnis are mad - they boycotted the first vote and are looking for a new distribution of power as payback for their efforts against al-Qaida.

In Anbar, the 22-member provincial council is dominated by the moderate Iraq Islamic Party of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, drawing protests from the influential tribal leaders.

Awakening council representatives announced this week that they were giving the party 30 days to vacate the seats it holds in the provincial council or face a crackdown like that launched against al-Qaida.

"The disputes with the Iraq Islamic Party began as we were fighting al-Qaida in Anbar. The Islamic Party defended al-Qaida and we hold against it any blood that was shed in Anbar," Hamid al-Hayeis, an awakening council chieftain, said Wednesday at a press conference in Baghdad, where he was lobbying for support from the national parliament.

The head of the Anbar provincial council, Abdul Salam al-Ani of the Iraq Islamic Party, countered Saturday with a threat to sue al-Hayeis.

Ahmed Khames, a 53-year-old electrical equipment dealer in central Fallujah, said the politicians and tribal leaders were jockeying for power and a cut of lucrative U.S. reconstruction contracts.

"The situation in Fallujah has gone from facing an al-Qaida threat to a new threat from warlords, those who lead armed groups affiliated with the awakening," he said.

U.S. commanders played down the tensions but said they were an example of the new reality in Anbar.

Marine Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, who handed over control of the roughly 33,000 U.S. troops in Anbar on Saturday, acknowledged the fractured nature of the Sunni chieftains.

"They are homogenous in dialect, but they are independent in opinion and politics," he said at a news conference at the U.S. base near Fallujah. "What is important about the factions is that they are airing their political differences and solving them without violence."

Petraeus said dealing with that new reality would be one of the biggest challenges for the new Anbar commander, Maj. Gen. John Kelly of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

"It's a very different challenge than the unit that preceded them, which of course had to deal with a very high level of violence," he said, stressing the need "to try to build on the momentum of the awakening movement, to try to keep a bunch of fractious tribal sheiks and Iraqi security force leaders pulling together at the traces instead of in different directions.

"Now there's quite a bit of momentum, but over time of course they're going to have to try to maintain, sustain and build on that momentum with fewer forces," he said.

During the handover ceremony, Gaskin noted that Anbar, which stretches west from Baghdad to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, had just months ago been declared a "lost cause."

"There is perhaps no province that better typifies the struggle for peace in Iraq than Anbar," Gaskin said.

Gaskin, who announced last month that Anbar will be returned to Iraqi control in March, said attacks in the North Carolina-sized province of an estimated 1.3 million people had dropped from an estimated 400 per week to about 25, and the number of Iraqi police had grown from 11,000 to 24,000.

The increase in Iraqi security forces also helped U.S. and Iraqi troops push most of the insurgents out of the population centers in an effort to push them northward and disrupt the flow of weapons and foreign fighters into Baghdad, commanders said.

The military said January saw a total of 155 attacks in Anbar, the lowest since the U.S. took control of the area after Saddam's ouster.

Gaskin said al-Qaida would always try to reassert itself in the province, but he expressed confidence the turning tide against the terror network and its brutal tactics was "irreversible."