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Iraq PM makes groundbreaking visit to Ramadi

Iraq’s Shiite prime minister on Tuesday made a groundbreaking and unannounced visit to Ramadi, the Sunni insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, a senior staff member told The Associated Press.
Iraq's al-Anbar province tribes' leaders
Tribal leaders of Iraq's Anbar province greet Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Ramadi on Tuesday. Maliki's unannounced visit to the western Iraqi city is seen as a bid to build ties between the country's bitterly divided sects.Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, hoping to show those outside the capital that the government is working to tame rising violence everywhere, traveled to the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi on Tuesday and met with tribal leaders and the provincial governor.

The visit by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — his first as leader to volatile Anbar province — came a day after he warned that extremists would flee to other parts of Iraq during a security crackdown in Baghdad and promised government help in fighting them.

Surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards, al-Maliki also visited Iraqi security forces after he was flown to the U.S. base in a Black Hawk helicopter with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. The two exited from different sides of the helicopter and Petraeus took part in a separate troop visit before they met again for the ride back to Baghdad.

Al-Maliki discussed security issues and the need to restore infrastructure in the battered city during the meeting with Gov. Maamoun Sami Rashid al-Alwani and his provincial council, according to state television. That was followed by a meeting with powerful Sunni tribal sheiks from across the province, which stretches west from Baghdad to the border with Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

The meetings took place on the U.S. base in a Saddam Hussein-era palace on the western outskirts of Ramadi, the provincial capital, and al-Maliki did not venture into the center of the city, said Maj. Jeff Pool, a U.S. military spokesman.

Promises to improve electrical grid
Al-Maliki, who was accompanied by his top two security ministers, said he promised to improve electricity across the province and to compensate residents whose property was damaged or destroyed by military operations or terrorism.

He also was optimistic about efforts to end retaliatory violence between Sunnis and Shiites, despite persistent attacks in the province, including a suicide car bombing Monday that wounded 15 people. More casualties were prevented because Iraqi troops opened fire and disabled the vehicle before it reached the checkpoint, the military said.

“Sectarian violence is an abnormal phenomenon. It has passed like a summer cloud and it’s over,” he said in televised remarks.

He referred to Anbar as the “province of defiance” and promised support for regional players joining the fight against the insurgents.

Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, and other cities in the province have seen some of the bloodiest street battles of the war. Sunni insurgents remain well-entrenched in the city and continue to move freely through parts of downtown where Americans often dare not set foot.

Four Anbar governors have served in less than four years. One was assassinated, another resigned after surviving an attack, and two, including the current one, have had sons kidnapped. Tribal leaders who have met with U.S. commanders also have been killed. Al-Alwani himself operates under heavy U.S. security at a government center in central Ramadi, which has been a favorite target of insurgents.

U.S. to encourage Sunni-al-Qaida break
The U.S. military is pressing a campaign to encourage Iraq’s Sunnis — those involved in or sympathetic to the insurgency — to stop attacks and break with al-Qaida in Iraq fighters. Pool said al-Maliki’s visit to Anbar was an important first step in those efforts.

The discussion with local Sunni leaders was heated at times, as they demanded more from the government, but it ended “on an extremely positive note” with promises of renewed cooperation, Pool said.

Sunni politician Nasser al-Ani, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, welcomed the trip.

“The prime minister’s visit is part of the process and the plan to rescue Anbar province, which is a successful plan that has had good results,” he said, adding it would bolster tribal leaders supporting the fight against insurgents.

Al-Maliki said Monday that extremists would flee to the hinterlands during the Baghdad security sweep.

“So the role of security services in the provinces is very important. The government is ready to offer the necessary help. We are beginning to confront terrorism, and we must continue to do so,” he said.

Meanwhile, more than 700 additional U.S. troops arrived Tuesday in Iraq’s increasingly volatile Diyala province to try to quell violence northeast of Baghdad.

The U.S. Army’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division moved from northern Baghdad into Baqouba to supplement about 3,500 American soldiers already stationed there.

The move comes at a time when more than 20,000 new American troops are pouring into Baghdad as part of a U.S.-Iraqi push to pacify the capital.

More forces to Diyala
While sectarian killings in Baghdad have fallen since the crackdown began last month, violence has skyrocketed to the northeast in Diyala, where direct attacks on U.S. forces have risen 70 percent since last summer, according to U.S. military figures.

“We began looking at this several months ago, in support of the Baghdad plan. We knew the surrounding provinces would be in play,” Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division and the top U.S. official in northern Iraq, told The Associated Press.

“I recognized for sure that Diyala would become more violent as operations picked up in Baghdad,” Mixon said.

The additional American forces join more than 20,000 Iraqi security forces in Diyala, according to figures provided by the U.S. military. About half of those are Iraqi police, and half are members of the Iraqi 5th Army Division.

“This should be fun, but three months and it’s over,” said Sgt. Todd Selge, 22, of Burnsville, Minn., whose unit is slated to leave Iraq in late spring. “We’ve heard that a lot of insurgents have moved here from Baghdad. The Iraqi army is supposed to be OK here, so we’re coming to help them stand up.”

The security crackdown in Baghdad already has seen a decline in execution-style killings, random shootings and rocket attacks, in large part because Shiite parties have been successful in persuading the Shiite militias to pull armed fighters off the streets to avoid a showdown with the Americans.

At least nine people were killed or found dead Tuesday, including four men who were shot to death in a Sunni mosque in southwestern Baghdad.