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Changing Attitudes Bolster Renewed Multidimensional Effort in Iraq

By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 22, 2007 – A renewed effort to integrate security progress with economic and political initiatives in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq has created “the potential for a turnaround” in the country, a U.S. State Department official said yesterday.

Ambassador Daniel Speckhard, deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, told online journalists that changing attitudes among key Iraqi national and provincial leaders are enhancing the effects of a coordinated push by U.S. troops and diplomats to stabilize the country and promote national reconciliation.

It is “too early to draw strong conclusions, but there are emerging signs” that the current Baghdad security plan is working, Speckhard said.

He credited Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s expanded focus on all elements of the plan with driving results on the Iraqi side. In a similar push to stabilize the Iraqi capital last summer, Speckhard said, the prime minister had limited his attention to the security situation, leaving supporting elements of the strategy to subordinates in his government.

This time through, Maliki created six committees to oversee the non-security pieces of the Baghdad plan, with oversight of economic development, essential services, communications, community outreach and related functions. Speckhard said the prime minister meets weekly with each team to review progress and action items, but noted, “The challenge, of course, comes in the implementation.”

In support of the prime minister’s leadership, Speckhard explained, improved integration of U.S. military, political and reconstruction efforts is creating traction toward lasting change. With State Department personnel embedding with U.S. military forces throughout Baghdad and the rest of the country, an emphasis on community relations and micro-level priorities is gradually earning the trust of the Iraqi population.

The State Department is “focusing on enhancing our civilian support to the military as they do this surge,” Speckhard said. “We’re going to add six new embedded provincial reconstruction teams with six brigades here to get closer to the community level as we do not just the reconstruction, but also the political engagement supporting reconciliation at the community level.”

Specialists from the U.S. Agency for International Development are working directly alongside U.S. troops in the city to identify reconstruction needs, the ambassador explained. The situation avoids a disconnect between headquarters and the ground when setting priorities, he said.

Speckhard said U.S. forces have been working with the Government of Iraq for the past six months to “enhance their ability to get essential services inside Baghdad.” The cooperation is starting to have some effect, he noted.

Progress on essential services has been made in even the city’s most troubled neighborhoods, Speckhard said, including installation of an electrical grid within Sadr City that serves more than 100,000 residents.

On the economic front, Speckhard said, Baghdad provincial reconstruction teams would offer programs for “micro-enterprise lending” and community-based vocational training projects, working alongside the U.S. military to generate employment opportunities for Baghdad residents.

“You have to get businesses back up and running (and) employment generated” to help stabilize the situation, Speckhard said of the plan. “If we can’t get these young people to work, if you can’t get them the opportunities for jobs and so forth, they’ll be attractive recruits for militias and insurgents.”

Efforts are also under way to improve Iraq’s health care system and eliminate militia infiltration of the Ministry of Health, Speckhard said. He explained that Maliki has instructed Iraqi security forces to clear hospitals of the sectarian influence that has kept many of Baghdad’s Sunni residents from seeking care.

“He has actually directed his military to take back the hospitals from what has been a significant spree of militia infiltrations,” Speckhard said.

On militias overall, Speckhard noted the current Baghdad security plan has benefited from Maliki’s communication of clear ground rules at the inception. In effect, Speckhard explained, Maliki stated that a monopoly on force rests with the Iraqi government, and any violator of that policy would be punished severely and “across the board evenly, be it Sunni or Shiia.”

These measures, combined with the surge in U.S. and Iraqi forces, “had a chilling effect on militias,” Speckhard explained.

At the same time, the ambassador said, U.S. officials have focused on reaching out to those Iraqi community leaders who might have relationships with militias, winning their support through a commitment to “certain principles as to how we intend to carry this process out,” including a “soft-knock approach” to neighborhood sweeps.

Elsewhere in the country, outreach to local leaders by the government of Iraq has also benefited the security situation. Speckhard pointed to a recent trip to Anbar province by the prime minister, the first such trip Maliki has made and his clearest gesture yet toward pulling Sunni tribal sheiks into the government.

The visit was a “huge political step” and marked a change in attitudes, Speckhard explained. He summarized Maliki’s message to the tribal leaders as: “We’re here, we want to make this work, we want to support you, and we want to bring the tribal sheikhs into this process to make it successful.”

U.S. officials are beginning to see a “changed dynamic in Anbar,” Speckhard said, with tribal sheiks starting to switch allegiances away from the insurgents and towards the government of Iraq. They “have come to the conclusion that al Qaeda is the true enemy and doesn’t have the interests of Anbar or the Iraqis at heart,” he said.

Tribal sheikhs have started providing police and army recruits to support stability in the region, Speckhard noted, and while al Qaeda remains a challenge, the Sunni engagement marks “a fundamental shift in the political groundwork out there that’s going to have an effect on the security situation” throughout the country.

The Iraqi prime minister believes that, in Anbar province, “there is essentially a corridor coming from Syria” for funneling weapons and explosives into Baghdad and elsewhere, Speckhard explained.

In embracing the need for a coordinated effort across the political, economic and security realms, the prime minister has demonstrated his willingness to take the necessary actions to bring about stability in Iraq, Speckhard said.

“That he’s committed to this, in my mind, is a very positive sign,” the ambassador said of Maliki.

(Tim Kilbride is assigned to American Forces Information Service.)

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