The top Marine in Iraq says Sunni tribal leaders in restive Anbar province are finally joining the coalition effort, resulting in thousands of Iraqis enlisting with the police forces.
“We think the security climate has shifted in a positive manner,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, commander of Multinational Force-West, which includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
“It is this growing cooperation with the local community, this common interest in a better life for its citizens, so that they can again prosper, that gives me guarded optimism in the future of Anbar,” Gen. Zilmer told Pentagon reporters in a teleconference.
He said tribal leaders were responsible for more than 2,000 men joining the police in recent months and turning the Al Qaim area near the Syrian border, once infested by al Qaeda, into a relatively secure location. Still, the police force is short 3,500 officers.
Reminded that commanders have said the same thing about Anbar, only to see major outbreaks of violence, Gen. Zilmer responded, “What makes this a little bit different, I believe, is just the tangible results of their association. And that is really turning out their young men in their communities.”
The general compared the situation with what Anbar was a year ago, when al Qaeda in Iraq was on a “murder and intimidation campaign,” killing members of the provincial security council.
Now, influential sheiks are openly defying the terror organization by urging young people to join the government and by attending political and economic meetings and conferences.
“That said, I believe they will be tested,” he said. “They will be challenged. … They certainly need to be sensitive about their security. … This is a very active, a very vibrant insurgency that exists out here.”
About 50 percent of men in Anbar are out of work, military analysts have said, driving many toward the insurgency and its ample supply of cash to pay recruits on the spot. Gen. Zilmer said some Iraqis are hired to work on U.S.-financed projects, which to date number 302 at a cost of $51 million.
Gen. Zilmer said the 4,000 additional Marines for Anbar, as part of President Bush’s surge of 21,000 troops to Iraq, will be deployed in areas now devoid of U.S. presence. The United States already has about 30,000 troops in the province.
The commander said most of the insurgents in Anbar are Sunni extremists led by al Qaeda operatives. Their goal: Turn Anbar into an Islamic state, or caliphate, from which terror operations can be planned. “They want to turn back the hands of time,” Gen. Zilmer said.
He said Ramadi remains a dangerous city, and that insurgents operate in places where Marines do not.
“There is no challenge to us that prevents us to go anywhere we need to go,” he said.