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“A key to ending the insurgency is getting Iraqi tribal leaders to decide that it’s better for them to join the political process than to engage in anti-government or anti-U.S. violence,” Mr. Feith said in an interview.

James Russell, co-director of the Center for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif., is writing a book on the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.

After interviewing commanders and reading their internal reports, he concludes, “There was no national-level plan to conduct a counterinsurgency in 2003, including no plan for engaging tribal leaders.”

Mr. Russell told The Times that Marine Corps and Army commanders, largely on their own, began grass-roots overtures to sheiks and their followers in 2005. Troops moved out of forward operating bases and started living in the neighborhoods.

The Marines, Mr. Russell said, went so far as to bring American police officers to Anbar province to show them how to impose security, street by street.

Begun in Anbar, the on-the-fly doctrine spread to places such as the northern border town of Tal Afar, which the Army freed of extremist control in 2006.

By 2007, the sheiks of Anbar were renouncing al Qaeda and ordering young Sunnis to fight the terrorist group.

Maliki is applying some of the same lessons in Basra,” Mr. Russell said, ” ‘I’m sending in troops. The troops are going to stay there and I’m engaging the local people, the tribal leaders.’”

In 2007, the U.S. command began the troop surge and brought the Anbar experiment to Baghdad. It authorized unit commanders to negotiate on their own with Sunni insurgent leaders. Up sprung the ad-hoc Sunni counterterrorism units known as the Sons of Iraq.

“We have to rely on the Sons of Iraq program to help us because they are extraordinarily valuable, particularly if al Qaeda or extremists start to move back in,” said Gen. Keane, noting that al Qaeda now has been largely pushed to northern Iraq. “They’re the first guys to know it and they finger it. They have to get paid. They have to be provided for. They have to be part of the team.”

Said Col. Steven Boylan, Gen. Petraeus‘ spokesman: “General Petraeus has, since his days as commander of the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq, recognized the importance of the tribes and their sheiks. He consistently sought to engage them and to ensure that they are part of Iraqi efforts to resolve the various problems that their country faces.

“The past year’s progress appears to have validated such an approach. Indeed, Prime Minister Maliki has reached out to tribal leaders repeatedly in efforts to help make them part of the solutions he has sought to forge in Iraq.”