US general says key province lacks support by Iraq
BAGHDAD - The top American commander in the former insurgent stronghold of Anbar said yesterday the Shi'ite-led government should have poured reconstruction money into the Sunni region after Sunni fighters joined forces with US troops to chase Al Qaeda out of the western province.
Marine Major General John F. Kelly told The Associated Press that his greatest "mission failure" was his inability to bring together the government in Baghdad and the Sunnis in Anbar to take advantage of the steep decline in violence.
"What the Iraqi government in Baghdad should have done is said Anbar is getting peaceful, let's commit," Kelly told the AP in a telephone interview from his headquarters southwest of Baghdad, as he begins to make preparations to hand over command of 23,000 Marines next month to Major General Richard T. Tyron.
"It drives me to distraction," he said. "I would count it as a mission failure."
Although Kelly said his mission did not include asking the central government for more money for the Sunni province, he was clearly frustrated by the lack of progress - a schism that stems from decades of brutal oppression of Shi'ites under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.
Kelly's remarks gave a public voice to sentiments echoed privately by other US commanders who see a double standard in the government's supporting the southern Shi'ite city of Basra while not making money available to the largely Sunni areas such as the northern city of Mosul, where insurgents are fighting US and Iraqi forces.
Anbar has seen some improvements in its water and electricity service, but mostly as a result of the Marines' efforts, Kelly said. Plans have been drawn up and are awaiting funding to build everything from electrical plants to refineries to schools, he added.
"We can make it easy on the government of Iraq. They don't have to budget it. Just give us the money and we'll turn this place into Dubai," he said, referring to the wealthy tourist destination in the United Arab Emirates. "Give us the money and we will get it done."
Today Anbar is considered one of the quieter parts of the country, though Kelly said there are about eight to 10 incidents a week, ranging from an occasional roadside bomb to a shooting.
Since he took command of US forces in western Iraq in February, Kelly said he has seen his troop level drop 32 percent from 37,000 troops to about 23,000 today. He has also has seen a 60 percent drop in Iraqi troops in the region after several battalions were redeployed in the spring to fight Shi'ite militias in Basra and in Baghdad's Sadr City slum.
Last year, Kelly pulled back nearly all of his troops from cities in Anbar as part of a gradual handover process involving 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. The United States and Britain agreed that their troops would be allowed a military role in those provinces only if called upon by the Iraqis as backup.
As of Jan. 1, the United States now must let the Iraqis take the lead in military operations in the remaining four provinces, too.