The topic was of utmost importance to the Iraqis: how to protect thousands of hajj pilgrims who will descend on this dusty checkpoint on their trek to the holy city of Mecca.
For Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the top Marine in Iraq, this particular meeting at the Iraqi-Saudi border was part of his “last 10 yards” strategy to disengage the Marines from Anbar province after four long and bloody years by getting the often feuding provincial and national governments to reconcile.
In the past there have been problems concerning the hajj pilgrims amid disagreements and lack of cooperation between the Anbar provincial government in Ramadi and the Iraqi national government in Baghdad.
Now, for two hours, the provincial government and the deputy prime minister, along with three dozen sheiks, contractors and military officials, debated, discussed and disputed how best to serve the pilgrims. The hajj in the Saudi city this year begins the first week in December.
“We must untangle this mess and decide who does what because we don’t have much time,” said Mamoun Sami Rasheed, the governor of Anbar.
Deputy Prime Minister Rafi Issawi agreed, and discussion continued amid much smoking of cigarettes and drinking of sugared tea.
Kelly, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), sat in a place of honor, on the same couch as the governor and deputy prime minister. He said little -- he was there not as a mediator, but a facilitator.
Kelly had encouraged Issawi to attend. Marine Osprey helicopters brought the Iraqi VIPs to Arar, about 200 miles southwest of Baghdad. Kelly’s presence made the meeting more newsworthy for Baghdad television stations, several of which sent film crews.
Kelly’s goal at this and many other meetings on other topics was to get the provincial and national governments into the habit of cooperating and providing services to their constituents.
“The Anbaris are trying to sort out who they are and where they’re going,” Kelly said later in his office at the base at Al Asad about 200 miles north.
After four years, many major battles and 1,300 U.S. military fatalities in the province, the Marine Corps believes that it has largely done its part in Anbar.
Kelly has 22,000 troops but says he could reduce that number significantly without hindering progress toward making Anbar self-sufficient. Any decision on drawing down troop levels will be made by military and civilian officials in Baghdad in addition to U.S. officials in Washington.
Ten months ago there were 83 police stations where Marines served with Iraqi police. Now there are 23. Miles of concertina wire and concrete barriers that lined the streets of Fallouja, Ramadi, Haditha and other cities have been removed.
Marine convoys no longer routinely order Iraqi drivers to pull over or risk getting shot. The insurgency has largely either been routed or gone underground, officials say.
Col. Patrick Malay, commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, says that chasing the remaining insurgents is like “hunting late-season pheasants -- they’ve learned how to run and hide.”
The provincial government in Ramadi has learned modern budgeting techniques, Kelly said. The national government, where Shiite Muslim influence is strong, has been more problematic -- viewing Sunni Muslim-run Anbar with suspicion.
The time has come, Kelly said, for the Anbaris to provide for themselves without U.S. help. “We need to break the dependency,” he said.
Kelly and his commanders are also trying to convince some Anbaris that the ancient system of tribal justice is counterproductive in the modern world. It could undercut efforts to attract outside investment needed to create jobs and reduce a dangerously high unemployment rate among the young, they say.
“You tell these guys, ‘You’ve got to get away from these revenge killings and honor killings,’ ” Malay said.
The meeting at the Arar checkpoint was followed by a noontime prayer break and a meal of lamb, rice and spicy vegetables served communal style with diners tearing off hunks of meat and scooping rice into stone-baked bread.
After the meal came a second meeting, involving what one Marine captain called “the varsity VIPs,” including the governor, deputy prime minister, Kelly and select others.
An animated debate broke out over a decades-old territorial dispute about the line in the desert about 145 miles to the northeast between Karbala and Anbar provinces. It was the kind of debate that can provoke passionate reactions from Iraqi leaders.
Kelly jumped in, gently cajoling both sides to compromise for the common good.
It seemed to have worked, with the two sides emerging to do joint TV interviews.
“With God willing,” Gov. Rasheed said, “the province will always be the leader in providing services for all pilgrims.”