FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
Thousands of demonstrators converged on the tiny town of Jena, Louisiana, today. Their cause: to protest what they consider a miscarriage of justice in what's now known as the case of the Jena Six.
In just a few minutes, we'll hear from one Morehouse student who's bringing dozens of Atlanta students to Jena.
But first, we've got an exclusive interview from Iraq.
Last week, General David Petraeus recommended a withdrawal of at least 21,000 surge troops. President Bush quickly okayed the move. The White House had said repeatedly that the surge is working. And to drive the point home, the president highlighted a new pact between U.S. forces and Sunni leaders in al-Anbar Province. Al-Anbar is a region in western Iraq and a former al-Qaida stronghold.
We wanted to learn more about this success story, so we turn to Marine Major General Walter E. Gaskin. He heads the 35,000-member Multinational Force-West, which patrols al-Anbar. Gaskin is also one of the highest-ranking African-Americans in the U.S. military. He says that while several thousands of his troops will ship home as part of the drawdown, the peace they've created in al-Anbar will continue.
Major General WALTER E. GASKIN (Commanding General, Multinational Force-West): What will I see are probably where they came in as a positive surge force with a particular mission, and we were able to accomplish that mission. It's a part of an ongoing mission to eventually turn that area to the Iraqis so they were placed and plotted the area that they covered by the Iraqi army. So it would be very good having them aboard and having them being able to do the work up there.
CHIDEYA: Let's turn to more of the local issues. There was the assassination of a key ally, Sunni Sheik Sattar Abu Risha. So how important was the sheik to your efforts and what is his death mean to trying to hold on to the peace or create peace in the region?
Maj. Gen. GASKIN: I think as tragic as the death of Sheik Sattar that we have seen nothing that indicates that his movement and the awakening for the Salla Allah Iraq will it fragment or be broken. What he - what he did for us was he was a galvanizing force. He motivated the people of Anbar in particular and Iraqis in general to stand up against al-Qaida, reclaim their country that he characterized in an awakening.
His brother, Sheik Ahmed, who is a leader in his own right, will be able to step forward. I knew Sheik Sattar. I was motivated and I liked him and - even though like others, I express sincere condolence for his death. He is a truly a martyr. And I think his death will cause a number of those who probably on the sense to wake up and see that al-Qaida means them no good and that to the point that they will remove such a national hero from among them.
CHIDEYA: Al-Qaida in Iraq has carried out some brutal attacks against the local Sunnis. But are you ever concerned that in your training of the local Sunnis, once you leave, they'll turn against their Shia neighbors and the country will descend into civil war, that you're training people, who might then go and, as part of the intercountry violence, be trained to kill each other?
Maj. Gen. GASKIN: Well, you know, the sectarian violence that they talk about is not religious. It is political. Sattar's mother was Shia. There is a growing desire for them to get past the political divide and get on with the economic development. They are not fighting for me or the coalition forces. What they are fighting for is their own country. The idea that they're going to somehow return to that fighting among themselves is ludicrous.
They have a purpose and that purpose is to reclaim their country. They will make the same mistakes that any developing nation will. But rest assured that there is no fighting for their country. They are fighting for the ability to have a country, and without outside influence, as in Iran, or interference as in foreign fighters.
CHIDEYA: But when the president came to al-Anbar to Iraq, there was some tussling over money. The local Sunnis were saying, oh, the Shias in Baghdad don't actually want to fund the projects that we're supposed to get rebuilt. And so how do you deal if you're talking about this as a political and economic wrangle as opposed to a tribal or religious wrangle even then it seems as if there's not always a spirit of cooperation?
Maj. Gen. GASKIN: Well, if you recall, three days after the president was here, we had an Anbar forum, too, where the vice president came out to Anbar. And one of those things was to bring forth a promise. The Prime Minister Maliki did offer $70-million supplemental. That was an addition to the budget of 107 million.
What is often misunderstood is that the government, the central government and its ability to provide for the municipal and the provincial government is based on a relationship of developing budgets. This province, the cities within the province never before had developed a budget. They were - basically under the Saddam days - were given money until that's it.
So now, as they go through learning how to rebuild cities based on the destruction, development of the state-owned enterprises, that's interaction that happens in every country, and it definitely happens for a very struggling relationship, which is sometimes very, very new and dysfunctional into some cases.
And when you throw in the political aspects of Shia, actually, running the government, and Sunnis who are trying to get that relationship, political relationship so that they can best serve the country, will be a struggle. I mean, that's the best politics. I think they are making remarkable progress. But to state that they're not doing anything because of learning the type of government they're doing, I think, is an understatement.
CHIDEYA: Let's turn directly to some of the experiences that you and your troops are having. When the president came, he said, Anbar is a huge province. It was once written off as lost. It is now one of the safest places in Iraq. But it still remains the second deadliest province for U.S. troops. So how do you reconcile that statement with what you and your Marines are living on the ground?
Maj. Gen. GASKIN: Well, first of all, you have to understand what Anbar represents to the Arab world and to Iraq. Anbar is approximately the size of the state of North Carolina. Ninety percent of the population lives along the Euphrates River, which runs any way for about 1.3 to 1.4 mile. Anbar has been declared by al-Qaida and the city of Ramadi is the Islamic state. Anbar touches three nations: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria. And it is the gateway into the land between the two rivers.
Last year, when they were meeting al-Qaida, it was at the height of its destruction, murder and intimidation in efforts to claim this area as the beginning of its Islamic state. It was. I mean, and there was a lot of fighting. We've been able to root al-Qaida out of the population centers. What that has done is separate, as you would want to in a classic counterinsurgency, separate the insurgents from the people. People didn't want that title thing anymore.
And so we've been able to use indigenous people joining the military, joining the police, and we've placed those police in the cities in the numbers that provide security for the people so that they can know what it's like to have a normal life.
So that's why the president can say this is remarkable, and that that transformation occurred over the last seven months. So yes, it's peaceful out here, but I take nothing for granted. I know that al-Qaida would like to come back. And I know that al-Qaida is embarrassed because they read the news and here are the papers of how they have lost, but the people - that's the important thing.
CHIDEYA: You are one of the highest-ranking African-Americans in the whole military, certainly in the Marines. And among soldiers, there's been a hemorrhaging of African-American enlistment in the Army, numbers falling by 40 percent for enlistments and reenlistments. How are things going in the Marines, and what do you think the military needs to do to reach out to African-American soldiers, Marines' families?
Maj. Gen. GASKIN: Well, I think it's a two-way street as far as African-Americans joining in military. For the Marine Corps, we are still holding at approximately the same level as society. That, to me, is problematic in that we must continue to offer and get young African-Americans to understand that the military is opportunity.
At one point, especially when I was a young man, fresh out of high school and college, the military offered opportunities beyond what we couldn't see in society like joining the military where there was instant recognition as a meritocracy for your merit - what you did, you earn regardless of color, ethnic or national origin.
Somehow, over the years, if the opportunities have gotten better in society, there is a somewhat loss - and this is across all ethnic groups - but because of the number of minorities, African-American in particular, it stands out.
CHIDEYA: Is it ever a help to you to have lived part of the African-American experience? What I mean by that is you have gone to school in the South, become a high-ranking officer, dealing with a very diverse group of people. Has it helped you to have lived part of the African-American experience in a diverse context when you reach out to these people who may be of different ethnicities within Iraq, different sects of the Muslim experience?
Maj. Gen. GASKIN: Oh, absolutely. I think when we say that we learn cultural experiences in order to better understand the Iraqis, having been in the minority, having had a chance to realize that you are a leader of all, I think that experience has helped me well, and I fully understand it.
CHIDEYA: Well, General Gaskin, thank so much for giving us so much time.
Maj. Gen. GASKIN: Good talking with you, and thank you.
CHIDEYA: Marine Major General Walter E. Gaskin commands Multi-National Force-West, and spoke with us from al-Anbar province in Iraq.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.