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Al Qaeda's New Enemy By: Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune | Friday, May 11, 2007


Al Qaeda's terrorists in Iraq now face a new enemy: Sunni tribesmen in Anbar Province. These tribal leaders in the heart of the insurgency are now backing coalition and Iraqi forces against the terrorists.

You want good news from Iraq? There it is, in flashing neon.

These Anbar leaders aren't just jawing. Thousands of Sunnis have rushed to join local police forces, with tribal leaders' encouragement. "The progress has inspired an optimism in the American command that, among some officials, borders on giddiness," The New York Times reported. "There are some people who would say we've won the war out here," one Marine officer said.

That's a phrase you don't hear often in Iraq.

While the Sunni tribal leaders probably haven't developed a sudden fondness for U.S. forces, they have apparently developed a deep disgust for the Al Qaeda agenda. The Sunnis don't want what Al Qaeda is peddling: a soul-crushing fundamentalist Islamic dictatorship.

About a year ago, Army Col. Sean MacFarland began exploiting that split. He defied conventional wisdom by negotiating with a group of Sunni sheiks to fight Al Qaeda, according to USA Today. He built small, more vulnerable combat outposts in Ramadi's most dangerous neighborhood to expel insurgents and provide security. "I was going the wrong way down a one-way street," MacFarland told the newspaper.

Turns out it was the right way. Violence is down in Ramadi and the surrounding province. MacFarland's alliance has ultimately expanded to include more than 200 sheiks, the paper reported. The tribes started attacking Al Qaeda leaders on U.S. target lists.

A rare success story? Yes. Like everything else in Iraq, caution is advised. The tribal elders might change sides again. The notion of a Sunni-U.S. alliance may not translate to other parts of Iraq, especially Baghdad. And Al Qaeda is still fighting. On Monday, for example, two suicide car bombers attacked a market and a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramadi, killing 13 people. "They committed this crime because we have identified their hideouts and we are chasing them," a Sunni police officer told The Associated Press.

Many in Congress and across America will say any progress in Iraq is too little too late. They believe, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said, that the war is lost.

But it is not.

In a recent op-ed in The Times, Owen West, a major in the Marine Reserve who has served two tours in Iraq, said that after years of failed strategies, the military "is finally making meaningful adjustments to the complex fight." Iraq can be solved, he suggests, but only by military and political strategies that complement one another. His suggestion: Double the size of the Iraqi army. Starting this fall, Iraqi units with American advisers would take the lead in fighting what he calls "a law enforcement war." American troops could be embedded with bulked-up Iraqi units -- even as the U.S. force level declines.

It's an intriguing idea. And the success in Ramadi is encouraging. But no strategy can work if Iraq's leaders don't meet the political and economic benchmarks that confront the government. Some of those benchmarks may be enshrined in a new U.S. military spending bill that the president and Congress are negotiating. That's an excellent idea: It dials up the pressure on Iraqi leaders to act.

One thing we know: No compromise bill will include a timetable for withdrawing troops; that's a deal-breaker for President Bush.

But there is a deadline of sorts for widespread, tangible progress. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, says we'll know by fall if the troop surge is working. That's when Petraeus has promised Congress a progress report. Rep. John Boehner, a key Republican House leader from Ohio, said Sunday that if the surge strategy has not yielded results by autumn, Congress will demand a "Plan B."

But many Democrats are impatient. They may push a stopgap spending bill that would fund combat operations only through midsummer. The rest of the money would be withheld pending a progress report.

In a Web video posted last weekend, Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, declared victory in Iraq. He pointed to the withdrawal timetables in the bill that Congress passed and President Bush vetoed.

He's wrong. That's not proof of defeat; it's proof of growing American impatience.

Mustering more patience is a herculean effort for many Americans. But the surge strategy deserves a fair chance through the summer to work. Anbar suggests that a change in strategy can bring a welcome change in results.

Remember: Al Qaeda doesn't have a Plan B.

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