In the past few months, U.S. military leaders in Iraq have been praising the work of so-called "Anbar Awakening" councils composed of Sunni tribal leaders in western Anbar province. The tribal sheikhs have allied themselves with U.S. forces and against al-Qaida in Iraq. The number of Iraqis aligning themselves with the Anbar movement has been growing.  And according to the Multi-National Force in Iraq, more than 70,000 men in eight provinces are now active in similar groups. VOA's Deborah Block recently attended an Awakening meeting in Anbar and filed this report.

In a village near Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, 1,000 tribal sheikhs and other local leaders from predominately Sunni Anbar province have come to hear messages of unity.

This sheikh from Fallujah, Abdurrahman Ahzobi, is encouraging local leaders to fight al-Qaida in Iraq.  He says it is important to have all Iraqis united again.

U.S. officials say al-Qaida in Iraq remains a threat that must be pursued.  A recent Internet message attributed to Osama bin Laden warns Iraqis not to join counter-insurgency patrols or help rebuild a U.S. backed national unity government. 

Although Sunni sheikhs started the Awakening movement, now Shi'ites, a minority group in Anbar, are working to reconcile differences with Sunnis in order to rid the area of insurgents.   

U.S. Army Colonel Kurt Pinkerton says both Shi'ites and Sunnis are cooperating with coalition forces to stop the violence.

"Al-Qaida chased people out," he said.  "Both the Sunnis and Shi'ites are moving back into areas they left.  We have many checkpoints that are manned by tribes that are both Sunni and Shi'ite who are sitting together."

Tom Burke is with a U.S. reconstruction team helping Iraqis start development projects in Anbar.  He says the difference is remarkable. 

"[You'll see] people talking to people, to show by-gones are by-gones, that we can work together, no matter if we are Sunni or Shi'ite," he said.  "They support one government, the government of Iraq, that they want an end to violence."

U.S. military commanders say they are working with thousands of Iraqi volunteers who are helping to secure their tribal areas in Anbar.

Although the men are called volunteers, they are paid $300 a month by the U.S. military for their work alongside the Awakening movement.  U.S. officials say the volunteers have helped cut violence in Anbar by more than half since last June by providing information about al-Qaida in Iraq and manning checkpoints. 

Ahmed Jamil Hussein is in charge of 180 volunteers in Abu Ghraib.

He says the volunteers have a good relationship with coalition forces and are doing their best to keep the area secure.

Tom Burke says as security improves, it becomes possible to set up essential services that are lacking, such as running water.

Ali Majid Salman al-Janabi, a sheikh from Abu Ghraib, says many other things are needed to improve the quality of life.

He says people need jobs, better roads, schools, and health clinics.

Burke says it is crucial for the awakening meetings to continue so Sunnis and Shi'ites keep working together and support a central government.  He says this is the way to keep al-Qaida in Iraq in check.