By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 3, 2007 - Local tribes siding with coalition forces to repel al Qaeda must be incorporated into Iraq's central government and its security forces, a senior Defense Department official said. The official spoke to reporters on background while traveling to Iraq with Defense Department Secretary Robert M. Gates. Gates joined President Bush and other top U.S. officials in a surprise meeting here today. It is likely the president's last meeting with all key leaders before deciding the course of U.S. involvement in Iraq.
The official told reporters in flight than an "awakening" of tribal forces in Anbar province has led to a surge of support for coalition forces there, but that the forces now need to be integrated formally into Iraq's central government and security forces.
"We don't need to be creating more militias in Iraq. The best thing that we can do is incorporate these volunteers into legitimate Iraqi security forces under the control of the central government. We have too many militias as it is," the official said.
The volunteers are now slowly being vetted into the national security forces, he said, and there is a long-term plan in place to bring more into the system, but so far efforts have hardly been successful.
"These forces cannot be stand-alone organizations. The central government of Iraq has to own the monopoly on the use of force, and it can't be spread among different militias. So, as these groups are coming on board, they need to be woven into the Iraqi security forces so they're not apart from the central government," the official said.
While there have been similar patterns of support in other regions, nowhere has there been such a turnaround as in Anbar province. This was at least part of the reason Bush and Gates chose to visit with top leaders here in this remote region instead of meeting in Baghdad. Officials said that Bush and Gates wanted to meet personally with the tribal leaders and discuss the progress.
Anbar is the western-most province in Iraq with more than a million people living in a region roughly the size of North Carolina. About a quarter of the population lives in the capitol city of Ramadi. Only a year ago, the area was an insurgent stronghold and military reports called recovering the region hopeless.
But, the official said, al Qaeda extremist views rubbed against tribal leaders, at the same time that the coalition forces were reaching out to them.
"The tribal leaders are saying 'There's got to be a better way' – which is one of the reasons they are now reaching out to us," he said.
The official said also that part of the reason for the switch of support could be that the tribal leaders see it as a way to be supportive of a unified Iraq.
"The country is moving forward and it will either move forward with or without them. And they are making the choice to be part of a unified Iraq" that delivers jobs and resources to the region, he said.
In exchange for their efforts, the U.S. military is increasing the number of provincial reconstruction teams in the area, as well as adding funds to local commanders' emergency response program.
The official said that U.S. leaders want to ensure that the change in the region is permanent.
"One of the major concerns is that this is not just a serendipitous event and an opportunity that passes us by ... but that this thing represents more than that, and it represents that the Sunnis in Anbar are drawing closer to the central government," he said.
The Iraqi government has pledged funds to the area as well, he said. One of its benchmarks is to begin pumping $10 billion out into the provinces.
"Right now the best form of aid is direct Iraqi aid from their central government," the official said.
Getting additional funding and resources to the region from the central government is the key to ensuring long-term success in the region, the official said. Also the tribes need to be part of the provincial election process and allowed more of a voice in the central government, he said.
"The need to be seen as an overall fabric and overall context called Iraq," he said.