Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has made his first visit to the Sunni stronghold city of Ramadi in western Iraq. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Baghdad the trip was promoted as a symbolic visit by the Shi'ite leader to the heart of al-Anbar province's Sunni insurgency.
The prime minister's unannounced visit to Ramadi comes as U.S. forces continue to arrive in al-Anbar province as part of the expanding troop surge.
Mr. Maliki met with tribal leaders and al-Anbar's governor, saying the central government is working to solve the violent province's many problems.
The prime minister said Iraqi officials are focusing on improving security, government services and the economy in al-Anbar. He also said local officials told him there is a desperate need for many basic things such as food rations.
U.S. officials say al-Anbar, a vast province that stretches west of Baghdad to the Syrian and Saudi Arabian borders, is a key city in the country's Sunni insurgency and a stronghold for al-Qaida in Iraq. Several thousand of the more than 25,000 additional American forces being sent to Iraq are headed to al-Anbar, which has been the deadliest province for American forces in Iraq.
The U.S. military has fought a long-running Sunni insurgency in the area, despite massive military operations over the years in cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi.
Marine Captain Paul Duncan, who is based in Ramadi, says part of the problem in securing the area before was the military's tactics.
"For the longest time, al-Qaida was sending their fighting forces to Ramadi sort of towards their version of a boot camp for terrorism," he said. "And then the old school mentality of 'to go in, clear the area and then leave it' just didn't work. You need that sustained presence."
In recent months, with more coalition forces conducting daily operations throughout the city, Captain Duncan says Sunni tribes that had long fought U.S. forces in al-Anbar, are turning against local al-Qaida groups.
"When we first came in about a year ago, there were six tribes working with us, about 12 to 15 actively working against us and about three to four on the fence," he added. "Now, we have 16 tribes actively working for us, still about three on the fence and six working against us. But as soon as we are able to provide security in their areas, we believe they are going to flip as well."
Iraqi and U.S. officials credit part of their successes in al-Anbar province to Sheikh Abdul Satar Abu Risha, a Sunni tribal leader who has been instrumental in persuading tribes to turn against al-Qaida forces in the region.
Since tribal leaders decided to work with Iraqi and U.S. forces, military and police recruitment rates have increased and more police stations have sprung up in the Ramadi.
But as more Iraqi and U.S. forces enter Baghdad to try to stabilize the capital, American officials have predicted that insurgents leaving the city could try to destabilize regions further away. Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, has seen a spike in violence in recent months and worsening sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shi'ite militias. On Tuesday, 700 more U.S. troops arrived in Diyala to try to crack down on the fighting.