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Moving Forward Together in Ramadi, But Slowly

While Baghdad’s residents reel under an almost daily onslaught of tit-for-tat revenge attacks by Sunni and Shia militants and Shia religious authorities appeal for calm, the remainder of the infamous “Sunni triangle” - minus Baghdad - is gradually quieting down. The region is still very much a war zone, but relations between the Sunni population and American troops have markedly improved, most Sunni public figures have irrevocably committed to the political process, and Sunni insurgent factions are widely seeking terms under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s amnesty initiative. This seems epitomized by Ramadi, the Sunni insurgent stranglehold which is the capital of the Anbar Province in western Iraq.

Ramadi, a mid-sized Sunni-dominated city about 60 miles west of Baghdad, is still plenty dangerous. American and Iraqi troops are now in the middle of an operation that is inching through the city, block by block, restoring government services and encouraging the maintenance of the local economy. Coalition forces are replicating a strategy honed in last year’s operations in Tel Afar, in which American and Iraqi soldiers worked together to build relationships with locals and weed out insurgents incrementally. This is not to underestimate the problem, but Ramadi has gone from an intractable hotbed of violence to a manageable danger, if handled carefully.

What has made the difference? Part of it is the presence and leadership of Iraqi troops. Writing in the Weekly Standard, three Iraq infantry veterans - David Bellavia, Owen West & Wade Zirkle - write about the progress of the Iraqi soldiers. Whereas in 2004 Iraqi troops often refused to fight or performed badly, now they largely take the lead. Aided by Military Transition Teams (MiTTs), American embeds within Iraqi squads, Iraqi troops are taking casualties but retaking parts of the city at the same time.

A second factor was the recognition among most Sunnis that they made a huge mistake in boycotting Iraq’s first election in January 2005, and this has led to a large number of Sunni factions seeking terms of reconciliation with the government pursuant to Maliki’s amnesty initiative. Having seen the empowerment of the Shia through the political process and the determination of U.S. and Iraqi troops in defending the government, domestic Iraqi insurgents are losing the will to fight.

A third major difference has been a change in attitude among Sunnis, brought about in part mostly positive experiences with Americans, and very negative experiences with Shia Iraqi militias. As described in the New York Times, many ardent opponents of the United States, while still wanting American troops to leave, don’t want them to leave right now. While the Shia militias have been active to a limited degree in the Sunni triangle outside of Baghdad, in several Baghdad neighborhoods they have had free rein. This is why the headlines screaming mass violence have largely come from Baghdad and its mixed-sectarian environs in recent months, not Ramadi and other Sunni-dominated areas. Many Iraqi Sunnis have also been alienated by the gruesome violence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and other takfiri groups.

Yet while the sectarian violence of the Shia militiamen has driven many Sunnis into a partnership of convenience with the U.S., the militia killings themselves, concentrated in the Baghdad area, threaten to tear the fabric of Iraqi society apart. This makes the fight for Baghdad all the more imperative, for once the capital is settled, and the center is held, the unity of Iraq will be largely secured.