Protecting Sunnis in Western Iraq ‘Complicated,’ General Says
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 17, 2006 Providing protection and stability for Sunnis living in a portion of western Iraq has proved to be a complicated situation, a senior U.S. Marine officer said today.
“We live in a gray area, and this is a very complex scenario that we have to work with every day,” Marine Col. Larry D. Nicholson, commander of Regimental Combat Team 5, told Pentagon reporters from Fallujah during a satellite-televised news conference.
Nicholson has commanded RCT-5’s nearly 5,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors since February. The unit’s primary mission, he said, is to train and develop Iraqi soldiers and police within his 1,800-square-mile area of operations in Anbar province.
U.S. and Iraqi security forces have teamed up to dampen the violence that gripped Fallujah in previous years, Nicholson observed. As a result, he said, life is looking up for that city’s mostly-Sunni residents.
Former dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab, had ruled Iraq with an iron fist, to the detriment of its Shiite and Kurdish citizens, who together constitute a majority of the Iraq’s population. Now, the less-numerous Sunnis are adjusting to the reality that they don’t have the political power they’d once enjoyed under Saddam.
Nicholson noted the irony in the fact that much of the insurgent activity in Iraq since Saddam was toppled from power has been conducted by Sunni Muslims. “We’re in the middle of a Sunni insurgency, but yet we feel … that we are the protectors of the Sunnis,” the colonel said. The spike of sectarian violence in Baghdad, Nicholson said, has caused thousands of Sunni residents of the Iraqi capital city to move to points west, including Fallujah.
Security is just one of RCT-5’s many missions, the colonel said, noting his troops also work with local Iraqi officials, tribal sheiks and religious leaders to bolster area governance and economic development. The Iraqi government has provided $70 million, he said, to rebuild Fallujah residences that were damaged or destroyed two years ago during the joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive that regained control of the city from insurgents.
U.S. military and civilian officials continue to assist in efforts to persuade the Iraqi government to provide funding for projects that benefit Fallujah’s residents, Nicholson pointed out.
However, there’s a palpable rift between Fallujah’s elected officials and the federal government in Baghdad, Nicholson said. Fallujah’s Sunni officials, he observed, “just don’t believe that the government right now in Baghdad is as inclusive as it ought to be.”
Yet, despite the changed political landscape since Saddam fell from power, “there are positive developments that come out of Baghdad and out of the government” for Fallujah’s Sunnis, the colonel noted.
But most Sunnis aren’t in any hurry to visit Iraqi army recruiting stations, Nicholson observed. “We have not had the kind of success that we would like to create an army that represents all of Iraq and not just portions of Iraq,” he said.
The majority of Fallujah’s residents do seem to realize and appreciate that the Americans are trying to help them, Nicholson said.
“You know, we are here to help get funds for them to rebuild their infrastructure and to make sure that they get a fair shake out of Baghdad,” Nicholson asserted. “And, I will tell you, it’s not lost on them. They understand that.”