The seed of the tipping lies in far western Anbar, in the collection of villages known as Al Qa'im. The village itself is one of the smallest in group, with Husaybah on the border with Syria now being (apparently) the largest. The area was the scene of heavy fighting between insurgents and coalition forces in 2005, with Operation Matador – one of the largest offensives to take place after Fallujah -- resulting in clearing much of the area.
It was against this backdrop that what has become known as the Awakening began, with a tribe that got fed up with the insurgents. The Alba Mahal tribe began fighting al Qaeda and, from all accounts, didn't do fare too well. It was then that the tribe decided to work with the Coalition, and other tribes and groups began to join in. The area around Al Qa'im began to stabilize not just for the Coalition, but for the residents as well.
Those bloody days of 2005 seem in many ways a distant memory to the land, if not the people. Driving through the area, it is clear that better times have arrived. Industry was in full operation, with key mineral and other plants in operation. Markets and other businesses appeared to be doing good business, even well into the evening. A new crossing complex was about to open on the border, expanding already significant trade. Clusters of new homes were being built as part of what appeared to be a significant housing boom.
That boom was reflected in the home of the head Sheik for the area. Whether new construction or extensive renovation, the home was gorgeous and reflected the new prosperity of the region. The meeting that night stood in contrast to the meeting a week or so before in West Rashid.
As with the first one, it began with formal greetings between the head Sheik, other sheiks and dignitaries, and USMC Lt. Col. Bohm, who lead the Task Force of the 1st Batallion of the 4th Marines in charge of the area. Pleasantries complete, a feast to mark the end of the day of Ramadan fasting was held in which a variety of special foods were presented. Upon a return to the new sheik’s hall and the consumption of chai, business began.
While serious, the meeting was relaxed and filled with humor. Rather than basic issues, it concentrated on specifics ranging from the return of individual detainees to specific grants for specialized programs. The broad and basic have long been covered, and with jokes and humorous stories told on each other, the participants pursued the finer details of governance and growth.
It was also a time for reflection and goodbyes, as the 1st of the 4th was departing in just a few days, their tour of duty complete. The trust and respect that had been built up between the parties showed, both in the humor and in the details of accomplishments. While not ranking in importance with the new trade zone, it is worth noting that Al Qa’im now has a sister city in the U.S., and that a daughter of the head Sheik was the pen pal of Lt. Col. Bohm’s daughter. Expanding the partnership that began in 2005 is the goal of all sides, as is growing the reconciliation and the local economy. The unspoken mantra appeared to be that with prosperity comes stability and peace.
As always, there are those determined to thwart peace. Despite the advances, the Marines travel in convoys to avoid ambushes and to deal with IEDs. The problem remains that it only takes 2-3 people to create and place an IED, or even to perform a small ambush, small acts magnified via eager trumpeting to the waiting world.
Yet, as we drive away from the meeting and tour through the nearby town, the people don’t appear to be living in fear. Families come out to wave as the convoy goes past, and glimpses down streets show families outside enjoying the pleasant night. Streets and homes are lit, and a local mosque has its minaret adorned in green neon lights. Alert and cautious appear to be the watchwords, rather than fearful.
The surge that began here continues to swell as it flows down the river to Baghdad and the south. At a recent recruitment session for local Iraqi forces, some 600 people showed up, eager to compete for the 200 available slots. No longer are people as afraid to take government jobs or do any work that could be seen as helping either the new Iraqi government or the coalition.
As you read this, what was Marine Battle Position Vera Cruz, located to the east of Al Qa’im, has been handed over to Iraqi forces. This group of Sunni, Shia, Kurds, and others has worked and trained together there, under the watchful eyes and guidance of the Marine transition team. Those who say that these groups can’t work together would do well to visit and see for themselves how well they can and do. Shortly, Battle Position Okinawa, known to many for its inches-deep dust that is finer than the finest cake flour, will also be handed over to local control.
Growth, economic and political, is clearly seen in Al Qa’im. The lighted streets and bustling people are a far cry from the bloody battles but two years gone. While there is still much to do, the process will continue.