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Iraq Strategy Shifts as Warring Factions Don't Unite

A series of recent reports have called into question the White House claim that the U.S. military surge in Iraq is strengthening security in Baghdad so that the central government has an opportunity to unite the warring factions through reconciliation.

Earlier this week, when President Bush made a lighting visit to Iraq, he bypassed Baghdad and instead went to a heavily fortified air base in Anbar province, where he met with local tribal sheiks who have been cooperating with the U.S. forces to drive Islamic extremists out of the province.

He called Anbar a success a "first-hand" example of "the dramatic differences that can come when the Iraqis are more secure."

With the failure of the Iraqi government to unite, however, the White House is now pinning its hopes on what's happening in Anbar. Instead of trying to bring about national political reconciliation, the Bush administration is slowly moving the goal posts, said Jon Alterman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"What we may be seeing here is an imperceptible 180 degree turn in U.S. policy, moving from this incredible concentration on the Green Zone and national government, and more on local governments," Alterman said. "The president won't say we're giving up on the national government, but if you pay attention to the actions instead of the words, the investment will be in the periphery rather than in the center."

The White House is considering increasing aid to Anbar. Washington has already pumped more than $120 million into the area, working with local sheiks and tribal leaders to help drive out al-Qaida in Mesopotamia from Anbar, and building up the local security forces there.

That effort has paid off: a year ago, Anbar was considered all but lost to al-Qaida in Mesopotamia and other Sunni extremists. Now, violence has been reduced and the U.S. is touting Anbar as a success story.

Alterman said that might be fleeting, because the Sunnis and the U.S. do not share the same strategic interests for Iraq. He said the Sunnis are cooperating with the U.S. only out of self interest.

"It's easier to rent people's loyalties in Anbar than it is to buy them," Alterman said. "What we may be doing is planting the seeds for an incredibly vicious civil war with people who are better armed and better trained than they would have been beforehand."

Wayne White, the head of the State Department's Iraq intelligence team from 2003-2005, said the U.S. runs the risk that the Sunnis could turn on American troops.

"The people who are our new best friends, who are helping us in Sunni Arab areas ... are the most virulently (against the) … occupation in the country," White said. "So once the deed is done, once al-Qaida has been finished off, (the U.S. is) … next on their list."

White said the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is worried that Sunnis could also turn on them.

Still, the U.S. is taking the sliver of hope in Anbar and trying to transfer it to other regions of Iraq, including Shiite areas. Judith Yaphe, a senior fellow at the National Defense University, says the central government is so inept and corrupt, that this local plan could stand a chance of working.

"If the Sunnis were won over by their self interests, maybe Shia parties could as well. … One would think that the pattern could work but it would take bigger investment and resources," he said.

Congress will have to decide if that investment is worth it. White said trying to replicate what is happening in Anbar throughout Iraq will most likely create fiefdoms, run by warlords. In turn, that would make it extremely difficult to weave together broad political reconciliation. He said the administration is not using a long-term strategy.

"The President either doesn't realize or doesn't care that it's a short term success story with a boomerang at the end. And will use it shamelessly in order to defend pretty much staying on the current course," he said.

Next week, it will be up to General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to convince Congress that there has been real progress, and they will most likely use Anbar as an example.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.