Friday, September 07, 2007

Maliki pledges aid to Anbar

Iraq's Maliki reaches out to Sunnis in Anbar Province  (Thanks Mark-In-Chi-Town)

The Shiite leader pledges $120 million in reconciliation move. Too little, too late?

Key members of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government made a rare trip to the Sunni bastion of Anbar Province Thursday to pledge more than $120 million in reconstruction money. Iraqi and US officials call it a significant step toward political reconciliation. Critics say it's too little, too late.

Mr. Maliki did not make the trip, but dispatched top deputies who met with Sunni sheikhs, Anbar officials, US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who was there as part of a tour through Iraq.

The overture to war-torn Anbar, long an insurgent stronghold where Sunni tribes have joined the US fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq, comes as Maliki is facing criticism from both US lawmakers and Iraq's Sunni politicians for failing to mend widening political and sectarian fault lines within the government.

While the money for Anbar – $70 million in reconstruction funds and $50 million to repair homes destroyed in the war – appears to be an Iraqi initiative, the US has been pushing Maliki to show more of an effort to reconcile with minority political parties.

Indeed, this one-day gathering in Ramadi comes just days before Mr. Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus are set to give their assessments of progress in Iraq in Washington. Congress is likely to focus on the Iraqi government's failure to meet most of the 18 benchmarks established by the White House to measure success in Iraq.

While the country still faces almost daily car bombings and violence at the hands of militias, Anbar has shown a degree of success.

On Thursday, Crocker marveled that the gathering of Baghdad politicians and Sunni sheikhs here could be held at all – and that security wasn't even an issue of discussion.

"The success [is] that Anbaris, the Iraqis, and the coalition have [pushed] Al Qaeda out to the extent that a conference [can be] held that doesn't even talk about security," he said. "It's all about development, services, compensation, and jobs," he said under a tent over a celebratory feast. "That's really significant."

The commitments made by the Maliki government include 6,000 new government jobs, new generators, and other measures.

The meeting was held in the government center of downtown Ramadi, the provincial capital. Even a year ago, the government center building here was itself not secure enough to hold such a meeting. Dozens sat around a long table Thursday and made speeches in Arabic with military translators helping to translate for American officials here.

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