A U.S. military commander in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, says more local people are deciding to cooperate with his forces and their Iraqi counterparts, and to end their support for the insurgency. The commander's report is partly at odds with a survey of Iraqi public opinion published this week, but some aspects of the survey support the officer's views.
Speaking from Ramadi, Colonel Sean MacFarland said the number of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces in his area has declined from an average of 20 per day a couple of months ago to about 15 per day now. He acknowledges that is still a large number of attacks, but he says the trend is in the right direction.
"Last time I talked to you, I told you that we were at a tipping point in the battle for Ramadi," he said. "Well, I think we've actually tipped. Attacks are down 25 percent over the past couple of months, and coalition forces, together with the Iraqi security forces, have steadily increased their presence inside of the city."
Colonel MacFarland says the most encouraging trend is a decision by tribal leaders to cooperate with U.S. and Iraqi forces, and to encourage their young men to join the new police force. He says police volunteers have increased "ten-fold."
"The tribal dynamic is new here. It's got legs. It's moving forward. And it's because success begets success," he said. "The people are beginning to recognize that the coalition and the Iraqi security forces mean business, that they're here to stay, especially on the Iraqi security force side, and that they have the ability to stay. And at the same time, they've come to realize that al-Qaida offers them nothing."
Unlike in Baghdad, where sectarian violence has pitted Iraqi against Iraqi, Colonel MacFarland says there is no sectarian fighting in Ramadi, which has a nearly 100 percent Sunni population. There, he says, he is facing an al-Qaida-led insurgency against the new Iraqi government and the U.S. troops that support it.
The colonel's report of increasing public support and cooperation, along with the reduction in attacks on coalition forces in his area, is partly at odds with a survey of Iraqi public opinion conducted for a program at the University of Maryland, and released this week. The survey indicates that 61 percent of Iraqis are in favor of attacks on U.S. forces, up from 47 percent in January. Among Sunnis, who make up virtually all of the population of the Ramadi area, more than 90 percent expressed support for the attacks.
The survey also indicates that 78 percent of Iraqis believe the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is provoking more violence, rather than contributing to stability, and about 60 percent believe a rapid U.S. withdrawal would reduce violence and improve the security situation.
Still, one of the principal authors of the report, Steven Kull, says there are some indications in the survey that reflect the increased support for Iraqi forces among local leaders that Colonel MacFarland reported.
"It's a more complex picture. It's not entirely grim," he explained. "The negative feeling seems to be very much directed toward the presence of U.S. forces. The positive signs are more toward the new government. And people seem to be having some confidence that the government is gaining some strength and people are aligning themselves with it."
The researcher notes that the survey indicates most Iraqis want U.S. troops out of the country within a year, and also fear that the United States wants to keep troops in Iraq permanently. He says that is fueling support for attacks on U.S. forces, while also contributing to growing support for the new Iraqi government and its security forces. He also notes that the survey indicates nearly 100 percent disapproval of the al-Qaida terrorist network among all Iraqis except Sunnis. But even among Sunnis, 77 percent disapprove of al-Qaida.
Based on the data, Steven Kull believes a firm timetable for a U.S. withdrawal would sway Iraqi public opinion against the attacks on U.S. forces and further increase support for the Iraqi government.
"If the U.S. were to make a clear commitment, it seems that that would change the environment," he added. "A significant number of people who said that they approve of the attacks on U.S.-led forces said that their view would change if the U.S. made a clear-cut commitment [to withdraw its forces]."
Many members of Congress and outside analysts have called for such a withdrawal timetable. But U.S. officials, including President Bush, have refused to set one, saying U.S. troops with be withdrawn only when the security situation warrants.
Colonel MacFarland, the commander in Ramadi, says he believes the security situation is improving. But he also says it has a long way to go. Indeed, he says, American forces will only be able to help reduce violence to a level that the Iraqi forces can handle, and that completely ending the insurgency will be a long-term Iraqi project.