U.S. Seeks Sunni Support Against Iraq Insurgents

U.S. and Iraqi officials have been trying to bring the Sunni minority into the political arena in hopes of draining support from the country's insurgents. The efforts have yielded limited success. But a successful meeting Tuesday in the troubled city of Ramadi provides hope for progress.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

There has been a wave of hostage-taking in Iraq. Right now there are 11 foreigners being held by a number of groups. They include four Western peace activists, who appeared in a videotape shown today on Al-Jazeera television. German television also showed a photograph of a blindfolded German woman being led away by her captors. She works for an aid organization. Iraqi police say the kidnappings are part of a plan to disrupt next month's elections.

BLOCK: For the past several months the US and Iraqi governments have been trying to bring the Sunni minority back into the political arena. They hope that will drain support from the country's insurgents. There have been periodic efforts to make contact with limited success. But yesterday, in the troubled city of Ramadi, a gathering took place that a senior US officer called one of the most successful he'd seen in over two years. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON reporting:

One measure of the chasm of mistrust between the Americans and Sunni Arabs in Al Anbar province came floating out of the sky Sunday night. Leaflets from US aircraft rained down on the provincial capital Ramadi inviting residents to a meeting with Iraqi and American officials at a downtown government building. Importantly, it was a two-way invitation. Not only could the Sunni leaders get in, the Americans promised they could leave without being arrested.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

KENYON: Marine Brigadier General Jim Williams summed up the American position in blunt language, telling the collected tribal leaders that he had no doubt his message would reach the insurgents in Anbar province. He said the sooner the roadside bombs, or IEDs, stopped going off, the sooner Iraqis could reclaim control over their province.

(Soundbite of speech)

Brigadier General JIM WILLIAMS (US Marines): You have many members in your tribes that plant IEDs; also, shoot at our troops. I understand the resistance. However, you must encourage the people in your tribes to not shoot at the coalition forces or provide bombs, roadside bombs or suicide vehicles. This will only increase the tension.

KENYON: That comment followed a volley of complaints from the sheiks, who had come to vent months of frustration and anger at the repeated US military operations: the houses broken into, the people rounded up and taken away, roads blocked, normal life throttled.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through Translator) I am stating demands here. Our main road is closed. There are American snipers here. This is also the problem of the detainees, the raids, the patrols. All this must be reduced.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) The Americans have completely paralyzed the movement of people in my city. The industrial district has been shut down since the end of June.

Unidentified Man #3: (Through Translator) My brothers, what is our future? Seventy-five percent of the society is now illiterate. We eradicated illiteracy in the past, but now it is back.

KENYON: As translators struggled to help the non-Arabic speakers in the audience make sense of it all, it became clear that some of the comments were not merely fault-finding but urgent calls for a change of course and, in some cases at least, a recognition that the Sunnis need to be part of this new Iraqi government every bit as badly as the government needs them in it.

Unidentified Man #4: (Through Translator) If the political process fails, then even the withdrawal of American troops will fail and everything will fail. The good thing is that the Americans say they intend to withdraw. So we need to ask ourselves, `Who will step into their place?'

KENYON: In the end there was progress but no obvious breakthroughs. The tribal leaders agreed to form an Anbar security committee to make provincewide proposals in the coming days for improving both the security situation for the military and the living conditions for local residents. General Williams called it a resounding success.

Brig. Gen. WILLIAMS: In two and a half years you haven't had this discussion at this level. And, you know, there's probably a lot of people in there that are up to their shoulders in blood. But, you know, if we get the reduction of IEDs, of indirect fire, mortar fire, rocket fire, then that's telling me they're having an effect with the community out there, and that's essentially what this groundbreaking meeting was about.

KENYON: But everyone here seemed to realize that a groundbreaking is followed by a long and sometimes difficult period of construction. Even as one Ramadi resident took advantage of a nearby translator to complain to an American lieutenant colonel about how the Marines were making Ramadi unsafe, insurgent mortar rounds exploded in the background.

Unidentified Man #5: They close down Ramadi in sections. We have to be crossed at safe point into Jahad(ph).

Unidentified Man #6: Who just did that?

Unidentified Man #5: That was not us.

Unidentified Man #6: No, no, no, no, let me talk.

Unidentified Man #5: It was (foreign language spoken).

Unidentified Man #6: That is incoming from insurgents against the people of Iraq, of Ramadi.

KENYON: It may be that someday this gathering will look like the beginning of a break between Sunni leaders in Anbar province and the insurgency, but today it was back to business as usual in Anbar. A US military patrol survived a suicide car bombing in the western part of the province and discovered three more car bombs nearby. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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