Bush, Advisers Make Surprise Visit to Iraq
By Ann Scott Tyson | Washington Post Staff Writer | Monday, September 3, 2007
AL ASAD AIRBASE, Anbar Province, Iraq, Sept. 3 -- On the eve of major administration decisions on U.S. strategy in Iraq, President Bush, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and top U.S. military leaders including the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petreaus, arrived here Monday on a surprise visit for a series of unprecedented meetings with top Iraqi leaders and Sunni tribal sheiks in Anbar Province, where progress has dramatically lowered attacks in what a year ago was Iraq's most violent region.
Bush -- along with Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace and U.S. Middle East commander Adm. William Fallon -- will meet first with Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and then with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other senior Iraqi leaders and Anbar tribal sheiks.
"This will be the last big gathering of the president's advisors and Iraqi leaders before the president makes his decisions on the way forward," said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon spokesperson. "He's assembled his war council, and they are all convening with Iraqi leaders to discuss the way forward."
The series of meetings over several hours at the sprawling U.S. military base 120 miles northwest of Baghdad will be "instrumental" in Bush's making decisions on the way ahead in Iraq, said a senior defense official traveling with Gates, who arrived at Al Asad on a C-17 shortly before Bush.
"This may be the president's last chance to meet face to face with Gen Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker before they testify on Iraq, and to meet face to face with Iraqi leaders to discuss the way forward," said Morrell.
"Nothing beats the opportunity to look Dave Petraeus in the eye, and Ambassador Crocker and say: 'What do you think what do we need to do, how is this coming along?' " said a senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Despite what military officials describe as disagreements within the ranks of the Pentagon and U.S. military over when and how quickly to carry out any U.S. troop reduction in Iraq, the official said he believed senior U.S. military and defense leaders plan to give "collective" rather than independent recommendations to Bush. In addition to Maliki, Iraqi leaders who will meet with Gates and U.S. commanders include President Jalal Talabani, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.
Gates and the other leaders are also seeking to gauge progress in Anbar, where Sunni tribal leaders last fall began to switch sides and cooperate with U.S. forces to expel extremist insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq from their communities in a movement that is now spreading rapidly in other parts of Iraq.
The choice of Anbar, where the population of 1.2 million people is 95 percent Sunni, is symbolically important as U.S. commanders seek to leverage the grassroots empowerment of Sunnis that first started here to promote broader political reconciliation at the national level.
"This unexpected, almost serendipitous event, this Sunni awakening" has led the tribes, said the senior defense official, to provide thousands of young men to serve in the police and Army in a crucial step that has helped to pacify the region, which was declared lost by some U.S. military analysts only a year ago.
Attacks were so high in Anbar Province last year that they even eclipsed the number in Baghdad, and Anbar has long been the most lethal part of Iraq relative to its small population. Yet in the past quarter of this year, Anbar has ranked fifth or sixth among Iraq's 18 provinces for levels of violence, the senior defense official said.
"Nobody's suggesting for a minute that it is now all peaceful and well within the government's control, but its significantly better than it has been in the past," said the senior defense official.
Sunni leaders in Anbar have begun to accept as unrealistic "any notion as many had years ago after the fall of Saddam that somehow there would be a status quo ante and a return to Sunni rule," the official said. Instead, they realize that joining in an unified Iraq, rather than fighting against it, would bring them jobs and economic benefits, including some of the $10 billion the central government plans to distribute in 2007 to the provinces. "The country is moving forward and it will either move forward with them or without them."
Still, leaders of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government remain wary about the Sunni movement, which has seen thousands of former insurgents join fledging armed security forces not only in Anbar but in northern Iraq and Diyala province in the east as well as around Baghdad, where Shiite sensitivities are highest, U.S. officials say. The government has moved slowly to incorporate the Sunni forces as part of the regular police forces and Army, for example, particularly around Baghdad.
"There are those inside the Maliki government that might want to characterize this as arming a Sunni opposition to the Shia-based Maliki government," said the senior defense official. As a result, U.S. officials see it as vital to persuade Maliki to visit Anbar, where he has rarely traveled since becoming prime minister, to try to turn the grassroots movement into reconciliation at the national level.
"This needs to be an Iraqi process to connect the top-down reconciliation to the bottom-up reconciliation," the senior official said. He said a major goal is to solidify the gains in Anbar through holding provincial elections and speeding the flow of financial and other resources from the central government. "One of the great concerns that we have is that this not be a temporary marriage of convenience," he said.