Anbar success remarkable yet

Freedom New Mexico

Something truly remarkable happened Monday in Iraq. The U.S. military handed the Iraqi government full control of security in Anbar province.

Two years ago, top military intelligence people in Iraq considered Anbar pretty much a lost cause about which the U.S. military could do little or nothing. But a place that not long ago was a stronghold of Sunni anti-American and anti-Iraqi government insurgency is now one of the safest places in Iraq.

Anbar is the 11th of 18 Iraqi provinces where the Iraqi government now has full responsibility for security. And it is the first predominantly Sunni province where the predominantly Shia government has assumed control from U.S. forces. It has become a symbol of growing U.S. success in Iraq.

Unfortunately, peace in Anbar could be fragile.

There is little question that the “surge” in the numbers of U.S. troops, combined with a new counterinsurgency strategy by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, had a great deal to do with the turnaround in Anbar. It is also the case that the turnaround was precipitated in great part by overreaching by the forces of al-Qaida in Iraq.

The AQI tried to enforce its version of strict Islamist sharia law on the local inhabitants and did things like appropriate the daughters of local people as “temporary wives” for al-Qaida fighters. Finally the local tribal leaders turned against al-Qaida, formed their own militia forces (which included people who weeks before had been part of the insurgency) and drove al-Qaida fighters from the province. The Anbar Awakening began in November 2006, many weeks before the “surge” was announced and months before there were extra U.S. boots on the ground.

The U.S. deftly took advantage of this change of heart, most effectively by paying Awakening fighters, who now number about 100,000, about $300 a month.

The Shia-dominated government has always been somewhat leery of incorporating armed and trained Sunni fighters into the national security forces, and to date has placed only 5,200 in the army and police. Recently it began a campaign to arrest key Awakening leaders for past crimes and has suggested it wants to dismantle the independent militias.

On Oct. 1 the Iraqi government will take charge of paying and commanding the Awakening militias. Will it dismantle them or try to do so? If it does, will a significant number return to anti-government insurgency, possibly precipitating civil war? The turnover in Anbar is a remarkable sign of progress, but unless Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government acts wisely it could be fragile, indeed.