A former US military leader has advice for Iraq on fighting al-Qaeda in Fallujah

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is "The World." Headlines for Iraq today could have been written a few years ago. An assault on Fallujah is delayed because of fears about civilian casualties, or an air strike in Ramadi reportedly kills 25 al-Qaeda insurgents. The difference is that now US troops are not involved. Those headlines I just recapped described the battle that's raging right now in Iraq's western Anbar province between the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and insurgents in the majority Sunni region. The BBC's Rafid Jabouri is in Baghdad. He says the current fighting stems from a long running power struggle between Iraq Shiite and Sunni politicians.

Rafi Jabouri: Although this country is governed by a power sharing agreement, a government of national unity where Sunnis are actually represented in power, but they're complaining that they don't have a say over security affairs and accuse Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of leading the armed forces alone and discriminating against them. The Shiites would say something different, the Shiite majority in this country. There is an overwhelming support for the army's operation in Western Iraq, among the Shiites.

Werman: The local residents there - who are they siding with? The Iraqi government or al-Qaeda insurgents?

Jabouri: Again, we're talking about a Sunni population, a Sunni community of Iraq. In general, they oppose the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In general, they supported the protest movement that started in 2012, influenced by what happened across the Middle East region, where we saw regimes being toppled by mass protests. However, many of them were scared to see the al-Qaeda militants taking control of two major cities in their province last week. That's when some key tribal leaders decided to fight al-Qaeda, not the Iraqi government.

Werman: So, some people are fighting al-Qaeda, some are fighting the government, and on top of that, I'm hearing a lot of Fallujah residents are fleeing in fear of a government onslaught to take the city back. It sounds completely chaotic.

Jabouri: It is chaotic. We believe that there is an imminent offensive to retake al-Qaeda. Just yesterday, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made a plea to the residents of Fallujah to drive al-Qaeda out in order to avoid a major offensive to retake the city. So far, we haven't seen any positive response to that. Again, this is Fallujah we're talking about here, a very tribal community with conservative traditions and with many officers in the former Iraqi army of the former president Saddam Hussein, with anti-government sentiments.

Werman: Fallujah, I'm sure you can't forget, was nearly destroyed during the US occupation of Iraq, fierce battles there. Have the residents rebuilt the city? Has there been a sense of renewed hope there?

Jabouri: When I visited Fallujah last year, there were signs of the fighting that took place in 2004; some of the most intense fighting that the US forces had sense Vietnam. But there was also some reconstruction and even some hope for a better future with the stability that followed, but again, the battle of Fallujah in 2004 made a scar on the collective memory of the population. If you compare them to neighboring Ramadi, which also had a significant part of it fall into the hands of al-Qaeda, Fallujah looks even more extremist, more radical in terms of dealing with the Shiite-led government, while the Ramadi, the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki found some allies in the tribes who decided to fight al-Qaeda. Nothing like that is happening in Fallujah so far.

Werman: The BBC's Rafi Jabouri in Baghdad. Thank you for your time.

Jabouri: Thank you.

Werman: Pete Mansoor is pretty familiar with Fallujah and Anbar province. Mansoor is a soldier, and not just any soldier. He helped shape the counterinsurgency strategy that turned the Iraq war around for the US. He was founding director of the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center at Fort Leavenworth, and went on to put his theories to the test as executive officer to General David Petraeus during the surge in 2007. He has a new book out called "Surge: My Journey With General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War", and I asked him what he made of the latest wave of violence in Iraq.

Mansoor: It's very disappointing to someone who spent 28 months of his life in Iraq, watched a couple dozen of my soldiers get killed, and all of the blood and treasure expended - it's deeply, deeply disappointing that al-Anbar and other portions of Iraq have spiralled downward the way they have in recent months.

Werman: Do you point the finger at anybody in particular, or any kind of mistake the way along the way for what's happening now?

Mansoor: Primarily, this is the fault of a sectarian Prime Minister, but also the fault of an administration in Washington that didn't really want to remain engaged in Iraq.

Werman: I'm sure you've seen the polls - most Americans are pretty happy to be disengaged from Iraq, but I'm wondering as a veteran, do you feel the sacrifices of your comrades was in vain?

Mansoor: Not perhaps in vain, because I'm not sure that al-Qaeda is going to succeed in what they're doing right now, but I have a different view. I realize that Americans wanted to be done with the war, but I really think that had we remained in engage, both with a reduced amount of military forces and more politically engaged as well, that we could have prevented this backsliding from taking place.

Werman: I don't suppose you would support going back and finishing things up at this point?

Mansoor: No. I think at this point that's water under the bridge. This is a no-go-back game. It's not like monopoly where you can return to "go" and collect $200 and move on. At this point, we're going to have to do the best we can without US forces on the ground.

Werman: We're just hearing today that the Iraqi government says 25 al-Qaeda militants have been killed in Anbar. Do you think that Nouri al-Maliki is now taking things under control and doing what needs to be done?

Mansoor: Well, he's trying, but as I show in my book, what turned Anbar province around, and Iraq in general, was far more than just targeted operations to kill and capture insurgents, which it seems that's all he's doing right now.

Werman: So you're saying that the Iraqi government right now is more reactive than proactive?

Mansoor: Very reactive, and they've turned away some of the tribes that were such a significant part of the turnaround in Anbar in 2006, 2007 and beyond. The Abu Risha clan, for instance, the initial tribe that allied with US forces in Ramadi - it's been sidelined by the government. I think that's the wrong way to go about it. These are people that he's going to need on his side.

Werman: The Iraqi government does have support of one of the biggest tribes in the area, don't they?

Mansoor: Yes, the Dulaimi confederation, and it's certainly an important one, but again, you want all of them on your side if you can, and it doesn't make any sense to alienate any of them if you can help it.

Werman: How do you even go about approaching a tribe? Who do you call?

Mansoor: Well, first you have to figure out who the tribal shakers are, the leaders. You do a cultural reconnaissance. You go and start talking to people. The folks on the ground understand who the movers and shakers are and you quickly can figure it out.

Werman: How do you actually win influence over tribes? Whether you're an outsider from the capital, Iraqi outsiders, or American outsiders?

Mansoor: General Petraeus used to like to say that Iraqi tribes are like reruns of the "Sopranos." They all have a construction company, a trucking company, and an import/export business, and you win support by giving them things and by making deals. It's business to them. We won support by giving them reconstruction contracts, by training their young men to become policemen and it was a quid pro quo. In return they gave us intelligence and offered security services in their neighborhoods, so it's not that hard, it's just common business dealings. It just happens that the business includes war fighting.

Werman: Back to the big picture - if you lay some of the blame for this uprising on Obama's desk, what should the US be doing about it?

Mansoor: At this point, we have to work with Maliki and try to moderate his sectarian political behavior. That is much easier said than done, because we've lost a lot of our leverage in Iraq with the withdrawal of our troops, but we still have a lot of leverage.

Werman: Pete Mansoor, the author of a new book called "Surge: My Journey With General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War." Thanks very much for your time.

Mansoor: Thank you.

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