U.S. Forces Struggle to Control Anbar Province

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Iraq's Anbar province is the heart of the Sunni insurgency, and has proven to be the most difficult for U.S. troops to control. A U.S. Marine commander for the region explains what he thinks it will take to turn security over to Iraqi forces.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, Host:

In Iraq, the U.S. military says it has killed or captured more than 20 terror suspects believed linked to al-Qaida over the past week. The military also reports that two American soldiers were killed yesterday in western Anbar province. Anbar is a Sunni area west of Baghdad and has been a center of the insurgency.

NPR's Tom Bowman recently spent a week with U.S. Marines there and he sat down with the top American officer in the province, Marine Major General Rick Zilmer.

TOM BOWMAN: There has been no let-up to the insurgent attacks in Anbar, and that is after all the patrols by the Marines, the seizure of weapons, the meetings with local officials and residents, the training of the Iraqi security forces. But Zilmer says he is not discouraged.

RICK ZILMER: I look at the progress of the institutions that we're trying to promote, you know. We're trying to bring the police up. We're trying to bring the army up. I'd like to see higher manning levels, and that is going to be a very rough issue for us, but these guys are not afraid to fight. They have the losses to prove it.

BOWMAN: There are about 30,000 American troops in Anbar province. Most of them are Marines. In the Iraqi forces, there are less than half that number. There are some areas with no Iraqi police, and in many cases the Iraqi army units have just a fraction of the soldiers they are supposed to have. So does the Marines who are in many cases taking on the insurgents.

ZILMER: Make no mistake about it. We are here to fight the counterinsurgent fight. But a large long-term piece of that is the development of the Iraqi security forces.

BOWMAN: Zilmer is on his first deployment to Iraq. He has been here seven months. He says Marines are a, quote, "windbreak" between the insurgents and the Iraqi security forces. But he and other officers say the Iraqis won't have the needed forces until late next spring, if then. That's when he hopes the Iraqi army troops in Anbar will increase to 14,000 from its current 10,000. And the police he expects to double.

But given, as you said, that the Iraqi police and army won't be at full strength in Anbar - I think you said next spring, late spring; so we're talking nine months - given that, wouldn't you need more Marines at this point to fill in that vacuum?

ZILMER: Well, you know, if someone gave me an additional unit, whether that would be a battalion or a brigade, could I use it? Sure, I could use it. But I think understanding that Baghdad is the main effort of the force as a whole, I think we have about the right force levels to do the security mission we have as well as develop those Iraqi forces, the Army and the police that are needed long-term to do the mission.

BOWMAN: Last month, some U.S. troops in Anbar were shifted to Baghdad to reinforce the efforts of American and Iraqi forces to rein in sectarian violence. In Anbar, many Iraqis say they are afraid to join the security forces. They fear they will be killed by insurgents or their families will be targeted. Only about five to seven percent of the Iraqi soldiers here come from Anbar. The others are from far off provinces. Nearly all are Shia or Kurd, which aggravates the Sunni population of Anbar.

ZILMER: Anbar is not a particularly strong area from which to recruit. We are trying to strike this balance of a Shia and Sunni army.

BOWMAN: Zilmer and others quickly add that providing security is just one piece of the puzzle. Local government councils must be created here - jobs, hospitals, better water and electric service. But the money to do all that is not following fast enough from the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Two hundred and twenty-five million dollars was promised by Baghdad to rebuild the Anbar city of Fallujah. Only half has been sent. Seventy-five million dollars was promised for the rest of Anbar province. None has come so far. Many in Anbar are bitter about this.

ZILMER: The moving of the money is probably the most tangible, most visible expression that I think the Baghdad government can make. It needs to do those things. The government officials, the ministries need to be seen out here.

BOWMAN: But a key question here is always when the Iraqis be able to truly take over from the Americans and defend themselves?

ZILMER: I'd be reluctant to put a figure on that amount of time, but I think it's a question that we ask ourselves. How much time is there before the Iraqi government and the people say enough's enough?

BOWMAN: Meaning it could explode into a civil war?

ZILMER: I think they've seen enough violence and chaos and anarchy now. I mean there are enough examples we've seen out here. And just two weeks ago we had eight children killed on a soccer pitch, six other mortally wounded. And one would think that would have been the breaking point right there.

BOWMAN: Zilmer says an important milestone will be the local elections slated for the spring. He says more elected officials will help the province's governor create a framework for stability. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Anbar province.

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