The top American commander in the former insurgent stronghold of Anbar said Wednesday the Shiite-led government should have poured reconstruction money into the Sunni region after Sunni fighters joined forces with U.S. troops to chase al-Qaida out of the western province.
Marine Maj. Gen. John F. Kelly told The Associated Press that his greatest "mission failure" was his inability to bring together the government in Baghdad and the Sunnis in Anbar to take advantage of the steep decline in violence.
"What the Iraqi government in Baghdad should have done is said Anbar is getting peaceful, let's commit," Kelly told the AP in a telephone interview from his headquarters southwest of Baghdad, as he begins to make preparations to hand over command of 23,000 Marines next month to Maj. Gen. Richard T. Tyron.
"It drives me to distraction," he said. "I would count it as a mission failure."
Although Kelly said his mission did not include asking the central government for more money for the Sunni province, he was clearly frustrated by the lack of progress — a schism that stems from decades of brutal oppression of Shiites under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.
Double standard for Sunnis, Shiites
Kelly's remarks gave a public voice to sentiments echoed privately by other U.S. commanders who see a double standard in the government's supporting the southern Shiite city of Basra while not making money available to the largely Sunni areas such as the northern city of Mosul, where insurgents are fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Anbar has seen some improvements in its water and electricity service, but mostly as a result of the Marines' efforts, Kelly said. Plans have been drawn up and are awaiting funding to build everything from electrical plants to refineries to schools, he added.
"We can make it easy on the government of Iraq. They don't have to budget it. Just give us the money and we'll turn this place into Dubai," he said, referring to the wealthy tourist destination in the United Arab Emirates. "Give us the money and we will get it done."
Today Anbar is considered one of the quieter parts of the country, though Kelly said there are about eight to 10 incidents a week, ranging from an occasional roadside bomb to a shooting.
Since he took command of U.S. forces in western Iraq in February, Kelly said he has seen his troop level drop 32 percent from 37,000 troops to about 23,000 today. He has also has seen a 60 percent drop in Iraqi troops in the region after several battalions were redeployed in the spring to fight Shiite militias in Basra and in Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City slum.
Last year, Kelly pulled back nearly all of his troops from cities in Anbar as part of a gradual handover process involving 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. The United States and Britain agreed that their troops would be allowed a military role in those provinces only if called upon by the Iraqis as backup.
As of Jan. 1, the U.S. now must let the Iraqis take the lead in military operations in the remaining four provinces too. U.S. forces must get clearance and coordinate with Iraqi forces before carrying out operations, and they cannot arrest people without warrants.
U.S. pullback from cities
The new agreement also requires U.S. forces to pull back from Iraqi cities by June 30 and completely leave the country by Jan. 1, 2012.
Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of all forces in Iraq, has said no decision has been made to withdraw the Marines from Iraq, despite comments from the Marine commandant that there was a greater role for them in Afghanistan.
Kelly said 2,000 Marines recently moved north from Anbar into Nineveh, the province that includes Mosul — though the U.S. Army has the lead over the Marines in Mosul.
"I could frankly care less about Afghanistan. I've got all the war I need here," Kelly said. "As people keep telling me, Anbar is not an island."
Anbar, which stretches from the western gates of Baghdad to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, was once the center stage of the Sunni insurgency. The province's fiercely independent Sunni tribes resented the presence of thousands of non-Muslim foreign soldiers, and many Sunnis began supporting al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups.
By late 2006, however, many of those groups had turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and its brutal tactics. Disaffected tribesmen organized so-called Awakening Councils, which joined forces with the Americans to push al-Qaida out of the province. That enabled U.S. forces to gain control of the provincial capital of Ramadi and other cities long considered killing zones for Americans.