LAST MONTH, the Associated Press reported that residents of Amariya, one of the bastions of Al Qaeda control in Baghdad, turned on the terrorists and, with U.S. help, killed their leader and many of his followers. The fight is emblematic of a larger trend in Iraq.
The Iraqi government has long declared its determination to root out terrorists in the country, and its security forces have been fighting Al Qaeda for months. But now, ordinary Iraqis, most significantly Sunni Arabs in Al Anbar province (until now the chief supporters of the terrorists), are putting their lives on the line against Al Qaeda as well.
The story of the "Anbar Awakening" — the uniting of the province's Sunni Arab tribes against Al Qaeda — is relatively well known. In mid-2006, a Marine intelligence officer in Al Anbar declared the situation hopeless and the province irretrievably lost. The Iraqi government was unable to recruit Anbaris into the local or national police or into the Iraqi army. But later that year, a combination of Al Qaeda atrocities and skillful counterinsurgency techniques by U.S. forces convinced Sunni tribal leaders that enough was enough.
Today, more than 12,500 Anbari recruits, the overwhelming majority of them Sunnis, are fighting or preparing to fight Al Qaeda despite ferocious counterattacks by the terrorists against them and their families. Tribal leaders are negotiating with the Iraqi government to rebuild their war-torn province. Violence in the provincial capital has dropped precipitately, from 108 deaths a week in mid-February to seven in the second week of May. Al Anbar has gone from hopeless to a beacon of hope and a signal of the turn of Iraq's Sunnis against their erstwhile terrorist allies.
Now the movement against Al Qaeda is spreading. "Salvation councils" similar to the Anbar Awakening have been formed in mostly Sunni Salahuddin province (north of Baghdad),Shiite-Sunni mixed Diyala province (northeast of the capital) and mostly Shiite Babil province (south of Baghdad). In some cases, their coming together coincides with cease-fires between U.S. forces and non-Al Qaeda insurgent groups. All are striving to reestablish normal relations with the Iraqi government.
Al Qaeda has responded in characteristic fashion — a campaign of atrocities designed to intimidate or kill its new antagonists. Such tactics were successful in the past. No longer. Today these atrocities only serve to remind the leaders of the salvation councils and their supporters that Al Qaeda is the real enemy. They have not deterred Anbaris from joining and integrating into the Iraqi government's security organs. They have not deterred leaders in other provinces from forming similar groups.
These movements show that success on the most important front in Iraq is possible, but they also are a reminder of how fragile the situation is. The Iraqi security forces are not yet strong enough to protect their leaders and followers from the terrorists. U.S. troops are vital in this task, something the tribal leaders constantly make clear, and they continue to be essential to suppressing Shiite death squad activity, which remains below 50% what it was before the surge began. A reduction of U.S. forces in the coming months would expose these Iraqis to horrific deaths and would turn what might be one of the most important victories we could win against Al Qaeda into an unnecessary defeat.
There are many problems in Iraq beyond Al Qaeda. Sectarianism within the government and the security forces continues to pose a significant challenge. Iranian influence is large and dangerous. Muqtada Sadr's return to public life adds more complexity to an already complex political situation. U.S. commanders and civilian leaders are working on these issues, but success cannot be guaranteed.
In the midst of the doubt and fear that grips the United States about Iraq today, however, it's critically important to recognize the positive trends. Iraq's Sunni Arabs, once one of the most supportive communities of Al Qaeda, are now among the most hostile, repudiating their alliance of convenience with the terrorists and risking their lives to fight with us against our worst enemies. This is a trend worth fighting to continue, and Iraqis who now stand with us at their own peril are people worth fighting for.