One of the main purposes of President Bush's surprise visit to Iraq Monday, along with his secretaries of State and Defense and senior military commanders, was to push Iraqi leaders along the difficult road toward political reconciliation. VOA's Al Pessin was at the remote, desert air base in al-Anbar Province where the meetings took place. He filed this report on the president's effort.
Reporters were allowed to see a striking sight for about 30 seconds before the most important meeting of the trip began. President Bush sat at a large conference table with local Sunni tribal sheikhs in traditional dress sitting alongside him. The top Iraqi leaders from Baghdad sat across the table, and provincial and military officials sat at the ends. Because there was no more room at the table, the president's secretaries of state and defense, national security adviser and several top military officers in combat camouflage sat behind him.
It took a visit from the president of the United States to get these Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis together in one room. The president's message was that they have to work together in spite of their different backgrounds and ingrained distrust.
"They're here in Anbar because they know the success of a free Iraq depends on the national government's support from the bottom up," said President Bush. "They know what I know, that when you have bottom-up reconciliation like you're seeing here in Anbar, it'll begin to translate into central government action."
Later, the U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates, described a lively exchange at the meeting, in which some tribal leaders expressed surprise at efforts the national government is making, like sharing oil revenue with their province.
"There was I think a good feeling, and each of the elements - there were also some military in there, we had the provincial governor there, we had the sheikhs and we had the national leaders - and I would say that there was a sense of shared purpose among them, that they were all in this together," he said. "And then there was what I considered some good-natured jousting about resources, and who's going to get what."
The question remains whether the Iraqi leaders will continue to work together without President Bush at the table. U.S. officials say that is essential to solidify gains made by the surge of U.S. forces and the counterinsurgency strategy.
President Bush, Secretary Gates and other officials credited those changes with helping to convince the Anbar tribal leaders to stop fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces and instead join them in fighting against al-Qaida.
"It was said explicitly today that for the first time, a Middle Eastern people got to see what rule by al-Qaida would be like, and the Iraqis rejected it," said Secretary Gates.
Earlier, a senior official traveling with Secretary Gates, speaking on condition of anonymity, had called the tribal sheikhs' turnaround "unexpected" and "almost serendipitous."
But other officials, including President Bush, later rejected that characterization, saying the surge of 4,000 U.S. Marines in Anbar several months ago was designed, in part, to convince the tribal leaders that the coalition is committed to defeating al-Qaida.
Now, the U.S. officials say, it is up to the Iraqi government to move the reconciliation process forward, in Anbar and elsewhere, to create more security and stability, and allow for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Many members of Congress are calling for the withdrawal to start by the end of the year, but combat commanders have said that would be too soon. President Bush said Monday if current trends continue, a withdrawal will be possible, but he did not say when. He is expected to expand on his view after key testimony before Congress next week by two men he met with on Monday - U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the top U.S. military commander in the country, General David Petraeus.