March 24, 2008 / 12:35 AM / 10 years ago

Anbar: U.S. trophy for Iraq security losing its shine

<p>Policemen check a vehicle at a checkpoint in Ramadi, about 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad March 19, 2008. Tensions are simmering again in once bloody Anbar province, Washington's prize good news story for security in Iraq. Picture taken March 19, 2008. REUTERS/Ali Mashhadani</p>

FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - Tensions are simmering again in once bloody Anbar province, Washington’s prize good news story for security in Iraq.

Along the main road through Anbar’s second city of Falluja, a former insurgent stronghold and scene of fierce battles with U.S. forces in 2004, markets and car workshops are re-opening for business.

But many say that growing anger at a lack of jobs, basic services and political progress threatens to shatter peace in the western province, which makes up about a third of Iraq.

“The situation till now is still not certain in Anbar, and the peace is only relative to before. Calm always comes before a storm,” Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Yaseen al-Badrani said.

The U.S. military said in January it could transfer security responsibility for Anbar to Iraqi forces as early as this month, but now it is more cautious.

In an interview with Reuters, Major-General John Kelly, commander of U.S. forces in Anbar, would give no time-frame, saying only that the handover would take place soon.

Sunni tribal leaders, credited with cutting violence in Anbar by ordering their men to turn on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, are growing increasingly impatient with politicians.

“We thought that when security was established in Anbar, then the situation would turn to development and reconstruction, but we’re surprised to see neglect from the government,” said Kamal Nouri, a member of Anbar’s tribal council.

The Sunni tribal leaders’ thousands of followers, who once formed the backbone of a Sunni Arab insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi forces, are demanding to be drafted into Iraq’s army and police force, or given other decent jobs.

“Where is the prime minister? Does he know what we have to do to earn a living to feed our families? Call this a job? The government has failed,” said Salam Faraj, a petrol pump worker.

POLITICAL PING-PONG

At a Falluja city council meeting, convened to discuss reconstruction projects, progress was not encouraging as accusations and excuses ping-ponged around the table.

The city desperately needs potable water, but a plan to stop sewage contamination has been stalled for months. The province was also once a major manufacturing centre, but little has been done to re-open the factories that at one time employed thousands.

Falluja councilors and the U.S. military have said job creation is crucial to lasting security. The unemployment figure in Falluja alone is 20,000, said city council leader Sheikh Hameed al-Alwani.

“We’re worried that the unemployed will deviate to bad ways to make a living. Al Qaeda has great financing, so we’re afraid for our youth,” Alwani said.

Al Qaeda and other insurgents have regrouped in the northern provinces since being ousted from Anbar and around Baghdad. Kelly said they remained a threat and could be planning major attacks to draw attention back to their former stronghold.

There was also the threat of violence if citizens’ expectations for new elections are not realized, he said.

Most Sunnis boycotted 2005 local polls and blame local councilors for failing to represent their interests and for delays in jobs and services. The councilors blame the central Shi‘ite-led government in Baghdad.

“The support from central government is small for all Anbar. We don’t know why. The reason last year was violence, but now Anbar is safer it should be given full support,” Alwani said.

A provincial powers law that would give local councils a stronger mandate to rebuild and also pave the way for fresh local polls -- which could give tribal leaders and other Sunnis more political clout -- has been held up by political haggling.

Local elections must be held as soon as possible if violence is to be kept at bay in Anbar, Kelly said last week.

TRAGEDIES MAY RETURN

Crucial to the turnaround in security in Anbar are the 4,000 members of the Awakening Councils, or Sahwa, a mostly Sunni movement dedicated to fighting al Qaeda. Many members were former insurgents.

The councils are headed by tribal leaders, who started the now nationwide movement in Anbar province because they were disgusted by al Qaeda’s indiscriminate attacks and harsh interpretation of Islam.

At a police graduation ceremony in Falluja, trainers in close contact with the Sahwa said they were battling to keep the men at their posts.

The U.S. military pays Sahwa members $300 a month to patrol their neighborhoods and man checkpoints. Many want to join the army and police, where the pay is better.

“If the Sahwa is not included in the security forces, there will be tensions. They fought the terrorists with us, and many of them were killed,” police trainer Ahmed Marthy said.

“Some have quit, but we keep asking them to wait ... if this continues, we’re really afraid tragedies will return,” he added.

The central government, wary of a force that includes many former insurgents in its ranks, has agreed to absorb only 20 percent of Iraq’s 90,000-odd Sahwa members into the security forces. The rest are to be offered vocational training.

Meanwhile, the Sahwa leadership has formed a political party and is, like others in Anbar, pinning its hopes for progress on the provincial polls, due by October 1.

“I expect great competition and voting for the provincial polls, the opposite of the past, when people’s wisdom was weak and ruled by the misconception that voting ... meant supporting the occupation,” bank worker Ahmed Latif said.

“People will not accept the bad management of the past.”

(Additional reporting by Fadel al-Badrani in Falluja, editing by Ross Colvin)

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