The Magazine

The Sunni Side of the Street

A hopeful gathering in Ramadi.

Sep 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 01 • By MARIO LOYOLA
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Ramadi, Iraq

As U.S. forces have pushed out from their bases and into neighborhoods across Iraq, and the surge has dramatically increased their capacity for offensive operations, a sense of security has swept into many parts of the country. Just as quickly--and just as proponents of the surge predicted--the seeds of political progress have begun to sprout. That was clear last week at the Anbar Forum, a historic gathering of national, provincial, and tribal leaders in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.

The Forum was hosted by the burly and jovial governor of Anbar, Mamoun Sami Rashid, who is said to have survived at least 34 assassination attempts. Among the guests where Iraq's two vice-presidents, Adil Abd al-Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashimi; deputy prime minister Barham Salih; and several members of parliament. Adding glamour to the guest-list were several dozen "paramount sheikhs" from Anbar's tribes, including Sattar al-Rishawi, who founded the Anbar Salvation Front and is credited by many as leader of the Anbar Awakening--as well as a show-stopping congressional delegation led by Senator Joseph Biden.

Having visited the government center in Ramadi about a month ago, I had trouble believing this was the same place. The ubiquitous traces of heavy machine-gun fire have disappeared; rubble has been removed; roads have been swept and washed; sidewalks and walls painted; shrubs and flowers planted. Nearby markets overflow with busy shoppers.

Though timed suspiciously close to the congressionally mandated midterm report on progress in Iraq, due this week, the forum was ostensibly unrelated. Its formal purpose was for the central government to announce a series of measures meant to mollify Iraq's Sunnis--who are centered in Anbar province.

The Sunnis have two chief grievances against the central government: the lack of economic support for provincial reconstruction and provision of basic services (in Iraq, as in most Arab countries, provincial and local governments do not generate their own revenue) and the exploding population of Sunni "security detainees" held by the Shiite-dominated police and judicial system. Shockingly, virtually all of these detainees are held for months or years before even a preliminary hearing, whereupon nearly 50 percent of them are summarily released, or acquitted after short trials, for lack of evidence. Frustration with the government's failure to address the detainee issue is what led the Accordance Front to withdraw its six ministers from Maliki's government in July.

The Anbar Forum addressed both grievances. The government announced an enormous economic aid package for the remaining months of 2007: $70 million of additional money for various services (water, energy, health, etc.), $50 million in compensation to those whose homes were damaged or destroyed in large-scale fighting, and a $30 million microfinancing facility for business start-ups. There are plans for a Haditha dam to supply Anbar's cities with electricity directly (right now it goes by way of Baghdad) and a program to hire 6,000 new civil servants in Anbar. The government also committed to a program of judicial reform, promising to release hundreds of detainees immediately and establish targets for quick processing of the backlog of cases.

The announcements were well-received, and one interpreter, who has attended many similar gatherings, noted that the atmosphere was warm and collegial. There was one partial exception, however: Senator Joseph Biden offered a short set of remarks that oscillated between the surprisingly supportive and the marginally insulting.

Evoking the difficulties of America's own early formative period, Biden raised eyebrows with this charming statement: "Maybe you will do better than we did. But, respectfully, I doubt it."

He continued:

These are difficult days. But as you are proving you can forge a future for Iraq that is much brighter than its past. If you continue we will continue to send you our sons and our daughters, to shed their blood with you and for you. But if you decide that you cannot live together, let us know. Then my son, who is a captain in the Army, will be able to stay home. I surely wish you well and Godspeed, as our futures are now tied together.

The exegesis of these comments began as soon as the gathering broke for lunch. The general perception was that Biden's principal audience was back home in America. But many of the Iraqi leaders present expressed understanding and even a reticent agreement with his point of view. This was also politically expedient: The central government delegation consisted mainly of Sunnis, and their position all along has been that it is the other side--Maliki and his Shiites--who are blocking reconciliation.