The mood was celebratory. Dozens of tribal sheiks clad in traditional finery gathered for a feast after the central government promised $120 million to help Anbar province recover from years of fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents.
An Iraqi government official watching the scene last week marveled at how the Sunni Arab leaders who once backed insurgent groups had banded together to get their province to this point.
“The next big step is when the same kind of cooperation occurs between the Sunnis and the Shiites,” he said wryly as cheeks were kissed and fingers were plunged into communal platters of rice and roasted meat. “That’s a different story.”
His comments illustrated the different prisms through which Anbar’s metamorphosis can be viewed. The western province that once was the hub of the Sunni insurgency is now a region of relative stability. It is likely to be featured in a progress report that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, is due to give today to Congress.
But is it an example of what can be achieved if President Bush’s military strategy continues? Or should it be regarded as a reminder of how difficult it will be to make similar gains elsewhere? Military and political leaders warn against resting hopes for all of Iraq on this province, where U.S. forces are empowering, and even arming, the people who once fought them.
Some say that the strategy could backfire by spawning new militias that in the long term might wreak more havoc on the country. They also warn that the situation here still could slide backward if the Shiite-dominated central government does not live up to its promises of support for the province’s Sunni Arab leadership, such as the $120-million package.
“There are too many unique variables,” said Maj. Jeff Pool, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Anbar, when asked if what has happened in that region could be replicated.
“It’s not exporting this model here that will solve Iraq’s problems,” Pool said. “It’s local leaders elsewhere finding out what works in their areas.”
That requires local leaders to join forces as Anbar’s leaders have done, but this will be challenging in areas that are not as homogenous and don’t face the singular threat that galvanized Anbar’s sheiks: the influence of Islamic militant groups claiming allegiance to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“It’s harder for them to buy into the idea of working with the coalition in other areas because they have other threats: Shiite threats, Kurdish influence,” said Maj. Ed Sullivan, who is on his second deployment in Anbar. He was first here in 2004-05.
“A lot of people look for a cookie-cutter theory -- the Anbar model. There is no Anbar model,” Sullivan said. Rather, a unique combination of events ushered in change.
In 2004-05, the province was the heart of the Sunni-led insurgency and one of the deadliest for U.S. forces in Iraq. Locals were more supportive of the militants than the foreign forces. That changed in 2006, when Islamic militants declared the province part of their self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, and began imposing harsh laws and brutal punishment for violators and opponents of their rule.
This drove the sheiks, who saw their local economies dying and their influence waning, to reject the Al Qaeda-linked militants and cooperate with U.S. and Iraqi forces.
“If it weren’t for that, we would’ve been forcing them,” Sullivan said. “It wouldn’t have worked.”
Nearly 6,000 U.S. troops are spread across Anbar, including 4,000 sent as part of Bush’s deployment this year of an additional 28,500 troops nationwide. Supporters of the strategy say the extra troops have made it possible for the province to remain stable in the wake of the sheiks’ decision, putting it on the path to long-term recovery.
According to the military, daily attacks in the provincial capital, Ramadi, have dropped from an average of nearly 30 a day to fewer than one per day. Last year, Anbar accounted for 43% of all U.S. troop deaths in Iraq. So far this year, it has accounted for about 20%, according to icasualties.org.
In other parts of the country, the Anbar strategy is being applied in varying degrees.
There are neighborhood watch groups in parts of Baghdad. In Diyala, the Baqubah Guardians are patrolling the streets of the provincial capital, a former militant stronghold. All of these groups comprise former insurgents who have switched allegiance to U.S. and Iraqi forces. If they pass security checks, they are trained and allowed to take up law enforcement roles.
U.S. commanders in Diyala say the Guardians are helping turn around Baqubah, a city that was largely in insurgent hands at the beginning of the year. They man checkpoints in their khaki T-shirts and reflective belts and have taken over abandoned houses, which they use as patrol bases.
Residents say they feel safer, but U.S. troops acknowledge that it is difficult to keep track of the different armed groups on the streets. Occasional bursts of gunfire are routine in the city, and the soldiers often have no idea who fired them.
Rivalries lead to periodic exchanges of fire among Guardians, police and Iraqi soldiers. In one recent instance, tribal elders, police and Guardian members met to discuss an incident in which celebratory gunfire at a wedding led police to arrest some Guardians. But the matter was resolved with kisses all around, one Guardian said.
Petraeus is expected to cite the formation of such groups, drawn from tribes and fighters from insurgent groups such as the 1920 Revolutionary Brigade, as a sign of progress. Skeptics warn that unless closely vetted, they could turn into militias once U.S. troops begin leaving Iraq, and turn their guns on one another in a bid to expand their power bases.
“Do we want armed tribes running this country?” asked Army Col. Patrick Stackpole, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division in ethnically mixed northern Iraq. “At the end of the day, we need Iraqi police. We need Iraqi forces.”
Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the attempt to replicate the Anbar model could backfire in the long term by putting the majority Shiites on the defensive.
“Successes that the U.S. military claims in western Iraq have come following the U.S. arming the Shiites’ adversaries, Sunni tribes, most likely raising rather than soothing Shiite anxieties,” Nasr said.
A U.S. diplomat who has worked with some of the groups said they had proved valuable at offering tips to troops about weapons caches, bombs and insurgent activities. But the diplomat said most appeared to be acting on behalf of local interests and were not guided by national or exiled leadership.
Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, said this decentralization had caused splits within some insurgent groups, such as the 1920 Revolutionary Brigade, complicating the situation for U.S. forces who must decide whom to trust.
“It’s elements within elements,” he said. “It’s a very individual and local thing we’re doing, and it’s really based on those individuals’ own decisions and then our assessments of them -- what are their true intentions?”
Admirers of the Anbar strategy say the progress is promising but no guarantee of wider success. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has called it “an essential prerequisite for reconciliation,” but insufficient to stabilize the entire country. That hasn’t stopped proponents of Bush’s troop buildup from putting it center stage as they fight demands in Washington for a timetable to withdraw.
Bush limited his Labor Day visit to Iraq to a stopover in Anbar. “In Anbar you’re seeing firsthand the dramatic differences that can come when the Iraqis are more secure. In other words, you’re seeing success,” he said.
Three days later, Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware came to Ramadi and attended the gathering of sheiks and national leaders at which the $120-million promise was made. Biden, a presidential hopeful who has advocated a decrease in U.S. troops in Iraq, made clear that he was looking at Anbar from a more skeptical point of view.
Biden said Americans wanted the cooperation that was evident that day -- around a long table crowded with robed sheiks, military leaders in uniform and government officials in suits and ties -- to be seen on a broader scale. Otherwise, he said, “we can say goodbye now.”
The meeting took place in a newly opened building within the sprawling provincial government compound in Ramadi. Early this year, the area resembled an earthquake zone, reduced to rubble by ferocious fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents. Just getting from the protective armor of a Humvee to the front door of the governor’s headquarters required dodging barrages of gunfire, said Pool, the regional U.S. commander.
Now, many U.S. troops walk between government buildings without helmets or flak jackets.
In the last three months, several government buildings have been rebuilt and repainted. The police headquarters is bright blue. The provincial meeting hall is salmon pink and beige.
As the sheiks swept through the gates of the governor’s headquarters for the meeting, officials proudly pointed out the intricate mural on the front of the building, its colorful symbols illustrating their dedication to reconciliation. A small fountain gurgled in the middle of the newly landscaped courtyard.
That same day, four U.S. Marines were killed in Anbar. In June, four sheiks died in a bomb explosion at a Baghdad hotel. Last week, a suicide bomber killed two Iraqi policemen in an attack not far from the government complex, a fortified, 80-acre area comparable to Baghdad’s Green Zone. It is surrounded by concrete barriers, and the wide avenues inside are off-limits to all but official vehicles.
Outside the barriers, much of Ramadi remains a blighted mess, something local leaders hope they can change with the reconstruction money promised by Baghdad.
Sullivan said long-term success in Anbar depends on the Baghdad government keeping such promises and rewarding the provincial leadership for its cooperation.
The U.S. diplomat said Prime Minister Nouri Maliki can’t stop with the sheiks in Anbar if he wants to ensure that others who have turned on the insurgents do not turn back. He will need to provide jobs in the security forces, salaries and other rewards.
“That’s the big question mark we still have: Which way is Maliki going to go?” he said. “I think he has close advisors on both sides of the divide.”
Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis, Said Rifai and Ned Parker contributed to this report.