Will The U.S. Win A Second Chance At A Sunni Awakening? In 2007, Sunni sheikhs, fed up with al-Qaida, started fighting alongside the U.S. in Iraq. The U.S. needs help again, this time against ISIS militants. But can they win Sunni trust a second time?
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Will The U.S. Win A Second Chance At A Sunni Awakening?

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Will The U.S. Win A Second Chance At A Sunni Awakening?

Will The U.S. Win A Second Chance At A Sunni Awakening?

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is For the Record. Five years after the U.S. ended its combat mission in Iraq, the Obama administration is ramping up the American presence there. The White House announced this past week, it will send 450 military advisors to Anbar province to support Iraqi forces fighting the so-called Islamic State. It's a complicated choice for President Obama, who in 2007, as a U.S. senator, raised concerns about sending in more U.S. forces to stabilize Iraq. Here he is, questioning then U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker.

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PRES BARACK OBAMA: The question, I think, that everybody is asking is, how long will this take? And at what point do we say enough?

MARTIN: That same year, General David Petraeus took control of the U.S. military in Iraq. Here's then CBS news anchor Katie Couric.

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KATIE COURIC: The man who will report to Congress next week choppered us to Fallujah in Anbar province, once the most dangerous place in all of Iraq, a place that he says is now a snapshot of what's going right.

MARTIN: Things were going right in Anbar because Sunni sheikhs, fed up with al-Qaida, started fighting alongside the U.S. It was called the Sunni Awakening and U.S. military officials say it was a big part of what turned the war around. Now, the U.S. is sending troops to Anbar again to try to wrest control away from another enemy force. This time, it's ISIS. Here's White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

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JOSH EARNEST: The president is confident that the announcement that he made today to establish, essentially, a fifth base in Iraq will bolster the capacity of both the Iraqi security forces as well as the Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar.

MARTIN: For the Record today, a second for a Sunni Awakening. We're going to hear from three Americans who helped build the alliance between the Sunni tribal leaders and the U.S. government back at the height of the Iraq war. First, Kael Weston. He was with the State Department and served as a political advisor to the Marines working in Iraq.

KAEL WESTON: Altogether, I spent almost four years there. Three of those years were in Anbar.

MARTIN: He remembers what it was like back in 2006 when the violence in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi was especially violent and exhausting.

WESTON: The tribal sheikhs would walk in and say, you know, we have tribal members who are tired, like you, of fighting and maybe there's a way we can work together against al-Qaida.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL MIKE SILVERMAN: My name is Lieutenant Colonel, retired, Michael E. Silverman.

MARTIN: Most of the U.S. troops in Anbar were Marines. Silverman was with one of the only Army units that served there.

SILVERMAN: I was a Battalion Commander, so for my first, about, 45 days in country on that tour, we took part in an operation called a freedom. Once Ramadi was liberated, that was really the first time that I began to work with the sheikhs. So that was probably early April of 2007.

MARTIN: And our third voice, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte. In early 2007, he was back in Washington working as the deputy secretary of state.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: It was the time of great sectarian violence. It was the time that we had the long internal debate about the surge. It was always front of mind.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel Silverman and Kael Weston were both there, on the ground in Anbar, helping build trust between the U.S. military and the Sunni tribal leaders.

WESTON: They would walk in, in their white flowing robes and thick gold watches and rings and big black beards, and we would sit down at a table and offer them tea while we drank coffee and try and work out an arrangement.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel Silverman was doing the same thing.

SILVERMAN: Almost every day I sat either in a sheikhs' meeting hall or an Iraqi police station or with an Iraqi army unit, and talked about partnership. I represented the entire strength of the United States government to those people when I met with them.

MARTIN: And every once in a while, a VIP from Washington flew in to make sure the sheikhs knew the U.S. government was taking the partnership seriously, like the Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

I happened to have been in Iraq in 2007 in that summer. You paid a visit to Anbar, you were in a room...

NEGROPONTE: I think you attended a meeting that I attended.

MARTIN: Indeed. So, I guess - I realize it's been many years, but how do you plop yourself down a circle of those sheikhs, introduce yourself and start to build a relationship.

NEGROPONTE: Well, it's not that easy, but I think in my particular instance, I was somewhat of a known quantity, since I'd been Ambassador there a couple of years prior, so these people at least knew me by name. And a number of them I had actually previously met. But, you can't. You can't just blow into a place, shake a few hands, have a one-hour conversation and expect to have overwhelming influence.

MARTIN: But, ultimately, the Sunni leaders came to an agreement with U.S. officials. They would direct their tribal armies to fight with the U.S. against al-Qaida. But, in return, they wanted political influence in the new central government in Baghdad - they wanted guns and artillery. And, as Kael Weston told me, they wanted cash.

WESTON: Yes, it was transactional. Yes, there were short-term deals that were cut, left and right, up and down the Euphrates River Valley. But, at the same time, we started to understand each other better, and I think that they started to understand that the American people aren't a very patient people.

MARTIN: The U.S. wanted results fast, and it happened. With the help of the Sunni tribes, the U.S. was able to push the al-Qaida-backed groups out of Anbar. But Lieutenant Colonel Silverman remembers that by 2011, the Sunnis were still locked out of the Shiite-run central government. They were not getting the resources they needed, and they accused the U.S. of breaking its promises.

SILVERMAN: I had sheikhs and police officers and Iraqi Security Force leaders call me and beg me for help. You know, they said to me, hey, Silverman, you made promises to us. And, you know, try as I could, I contacted the people that I knew. But, unfortunately, at that point, our government was not willing to live up to the promises that we made.

MARTIN: Fast forward a few more years, and U.S. troops are now going back to Anbar province; 450 military advisors, who will train the Iraqi national forces working to push back ISIS. They'll also be working with the Sunni tribal fighters, many of whom are still undecided about whether this is a fight they want to join. I asked John Negroponte if another Sunni awakening is possible.

NEGROPONTE: Yes, I think another awakening of sorts is possible. I think success is possible. In fact, I think that it's imperative that we be successful, and I think it would be a terrible tragedy to leave Iraq to the mercies of ISIL.

MARTIN: All three of the people we spoke with - John Negroponte, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman and former State Department rep Kael Weston - believe the U.S. military should have left a residual force on the ground in Iraq, which they believe would have prevented the ISIS takeover in Anbar. Unlike Negroponte, though, Mike Silverman and Kael Weston say the chances of a second awakening are slim. Here's Silverman.

SILVERMAN: I'm not sure that that strategy is going to be a winner. In some ways, ISIS has become so much more brutal than al-Qaida in Iraq, that it's going to be that much harder to get people to stand up against it. It is a terrifying proposition.

MARTIN: When Kael Weston thinks about what's happening now in Anbar - and he's been thinking about it a lot these days - he remembers something other a close colleague told him when he was in Iraq.

WESTON: I have a Marine General friend, Larry Nicholson, who coined, I think, a very important phrase, which is, you can't surge trust. And I think some of the challenges we have now is that we're surging weapons and drones and anti-tank missiles, but, you know, what are we doing about regaining some of that trust that took years and years and years and a lot of American lives to build?

MARTIN: That was former U.S. State Department official Kael Weston, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte.

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