By Gerry J. Gilmore
WASHINGTON, Oct. 10, 2006 – Iraq's elected leaders are taking measures to address the sectarian strife that has gripped Baghdad and other parts of that country in recent weeks, a senior U.S. military officer said yesterday. "The most telling sign of progress towards reconciliation is that the leaders from diverse factions with different interests are working together and are communicating with each other," Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters at a Baghdad news conference.
Caldwell, a spokesman for Multinational Force Iraq, cited a meeting chaired by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad on Oct. 8 in which senior Iraqi government officials and tribal sheikhs discussed possible solutions for quelling sectarian and insurgent violence in Anbar province.
Caldwell also cited an Oct. 1 event in which Maliki and leaders of political parties and religious sects "signed a pledge aimed at ending internal battles and sectarian violence in Baghdad by setting up district committees representing community leaders from all sects.".
Later this month, hundreds of civil society representatives will gather at the third of four meetings aimed at reducing violence as part of Maliki's reconciliation and national dialogue plan, Caldwell said.
In addition, "there have been number other tribal and civil society conferences at the provincial and local levels to address the same security issues," he said.
Iraqi Sunni and Shiite religious leaders are in Saudi Arabia discussing inter-Islamic fighting at a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The Iraqi government also hosted a recent conference in Baghdad in which international and Iraqi officials discussed the establishment of an International Compact for Iraq that would promote foreign investment in the Iraqi economy, Caldwell said.
"So, since the (Iraqi) government formed a few short months ago, Iraqis have made strides towards unity, but it is not easy," Caldwell acknowledged. "Progress takes time, and it is hard to be patient ... when we see innocent people dying."
With American help, the Iraqi government is "proactively and independently" working to find solutions to stem sectarian strife and insurgent violence, as well as to revive Iraq's economy, Caldwell said.
However, stopping violence in Iraq requires more than just a military solution, Caldwell emphasized. Achieving security in Iraq ultimately depends upon Iraqis supporting their government and reconciliation among the country's tribal and religious factions, he said.
Caldwell offered his condolences to the family of Iraqi Gen. Amir al-Hashimi, who was murdered yesterday in Baghdad. The slain Iraqi general was the brother of Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, Caldwell noted. "Details around this incident are emerging," Caldwell said, noting the Iraqi government "will seek justice against the perpetrators of this deplorable crime."
Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces are making a difference, Caldwell said, noting they are increasingly taking on independent operations, thereby becoming less dependent on coalition forces.
Caldwell introduced Robert Tillery, the chief of staff from the (Iraq) National Coordination Team, who's working with provincial reconstruction teams throughout Iraq. The PRTs work with local Iraqis in assisting local officials and municipalities to prioritize security and basic services needs for their citizens, Caldwell explained.
The PRT concept was first successfully applied in Afghanistan after the Taliban government was removed from power, Tillery said. PRTs are employed in Iraq "to enforce and bolster the ability of the provincial governments to lead and to respond to the needs of their people," he explained.
Teams of military and civilian reconstruction experts work with provincial reconstruction development committees that in 15 provinces across Iraq, Tillery said.
The system was originally set up to act on Iraq reconstruction needs as determined by U.S. and international officials, he noted.
"The PRDC helped prioritize and identify those electrical, water and roads and bridges projects that required repair, redevelopment and reconstruction," Tillery explained. After prioritization and identification the U.S. government submitted projects for funding, he said.
Today's PRDC program centers on local elected Iraqi officials determining what needs to be built in their cities, towns and villages, Tillery said, noting Iraqi officials have identified 135 projects in 15 provinces valued at more than $100 million.
"By helping local governments more effectively address the needs of their citizens, they will gain the support of their people," Tillery said. "Citizen support and confidence in government institutions is critical to a successful democracy."
Today's Iraqi economy is breaking new ground, Tillery said, noting it was state-run and badly managed from Baghdad during Saddam Hussein's rule.
"As Iraq emerges from a generation of centralized control from Baghdad, it is essential that constructive relations are developed between the center (of government) and the provinces," Tillery said. "There are a few mechanisms in place to support this, but the PRTs are helping to stimulate constructive dialogue that will build these relationships."