For months in battered Ramadi, Sunni Muslim militants took over mosques and used their loudspeakers to broadcast propaganda. So a few weeks...
RAMADI, Iraq — For months in battered Ramadi, Sunni Muslim militants took over mosques and used their loudspeakers to broadcast propaganda. So a few weeks ago, U.S. soldiers went to the local market, bought speakers and placed them on a tall, white tower inside their base.
Then they began trying to woo the population with messages from the mayor and local sheiks. The Americans spliced in verses from the Quran, the Iraqi national anthem and the news, and threw in the latest European scores in soccer, a sport loved by most Iraqis.
“This is good counterinsurgency stuff right here,” said Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. general in Iraq, standing near the tower Tuesday.
There was no indication whether such tactics have achieved much success, but Petraeus had succeeded in persuading Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to visit a U.S. military base in Ramadi, his first foray to Anbar province in nine months as Iraq’s leader.
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Al-Maliki was there to show that the Shiite-led central government cared about those outside the capital, regardless of their sect, Petraeus said.
The visit Tuesday illustrated the multipronged approach — melding military, political and economic measures — that U.S. military leaders say is vital for the success of a four-week-old security plan to tame Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.
“Ramadi has been under siege, has been out of control for several years,” Petraeus said. “This is early days in this particular effort.”
Ramadi and other parts of Anbar have experienced some of the fiercest fighting since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. Of the 3,196 U.S. service members killed in Iraq, about 950 died in the province. Dozens of schools and hospitals have shut down; basic services such as electricity are luxuries. Sunni extremists, including the group al-Qaida in Iraq, have entrenched themselves in Ramadi, battling U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.
Al-Maliki and Petraeus flew together from Baghdad in a convoy of Black Hawk helicopters. While Petraeus met his soldiers and ventured into the center of Ramadi, al-Maliki stayed under heavy security on the U.S. military base and held meetings inside a palace built by Saddam Hussein.
Petraeus had urged al-Maliki to fly to Ramadi, said Marine Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin, the top U.S. commander in Anbar, who recalled what Petraeus had told the Iraqi leader: “‘You’ve visited Iran, and you haven’t visited Anbar. You need to come and visit your folks.’ He responded to that positively.”
In closed meetings, al-Maliki promised to improve electricity services, rebuild the war-shattered infrastructure and compensate residents for property damaged in battles or by insurgent attacks, Iraqi state television reported.
Al-Maliki also met with Sunni tribal sheiks who came from across the vast western province, stretching from Baghdad to the borders with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Many sheiks have turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni militants and aligned themselves with U.S. forces and the Iraqi government. The U.S. military has been courting the tribal leaders, many of whom were once sympathetic to the Sunni insurgency, to break with al-Qaida in Iraq.
In recent months, Sunni militants have targeted tribal leaders sympathetic to the U.S. military, assassinating them and their relatives.
“Al-Qaida doesn’t represent Islam,” said Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, a tribal leader whose father was killed by al-Qaida in Iraq. He said hundreds of members of his tribe have joined or plan to join the local police force.
But Sattar and other tribal leaders want dividends for their support of the government, which they think has long neglected Anbar. In Tuesday’s meeting, they asked al-Maliki for new provincial elections in Anbar that would give them a political voice, Sattar said. Most Sunni sheiks boycotted the January 2005 elections. They also demanded al-Maliki provide more funds to build schools and hospitals. Sattar described al-Maliki’s reaction as positive.