THE WHOLE PICTURE
Recent stories from Iraq in print and broadcast media have reinforced the importance of having “the whole picture” when trying to make sense of the complex situation on the ground there. Specifically, these stories concern the dramatic progress that U.S. Marines and soldiers have made in improving the security and stability of Al Anbar province in western Iraq. A significant component of their success has been the cooperation of sheiks and local leaders who have rejected Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and turned to supporting U.S. forces in droves during the past year. Sparked by a movement known as the “Al Anbar Awakening,” these traditional leaders have decided that supporting U.S. forces is more in keeping with their interests and the well-being of their people than cooperation with AQI. One of the most tangible and significant signs of their support has been to encourage young men in their tribes to join the Iraqi security forces, particularly the Iraqi police (IP), in their area. After more than two years of excruciatingly slow progress, IP recruitment blossomed in 2006 and early 2007, with provincial totals surging from 2,000 officers to the maximum authorized total of approximately 13,000 in just over a year.
Recent reports, particularly one broadcast by a CNN correspondent in Baghdad last week, have referred to the enhanced Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Al Anbar as militias and attributed the progress in Al Anbar to essentially making a deal with the devil (Sunni leaders). The reports claim that coalition forces in Al Anbar are arming Sunni factions that are beyond the control of the Iraqi government or the U.S. and that these “militias” are likely to undermine national unity and security. These reports are one dimensional, ill-informed and misleading. To develop a fuller understanding, one must have a better view of the whole picture.
First the facts: The vast majority of Iraqis who have been recruited trained and armed in cooperation with coalition forces in Al Anbar have joined the Iraqi police (funded and controlled by the Ministry of the Interior) or Iraqi Army (funded and controlled by the Ministry of Defense). A small percentage have been signed up for local defense forces known as Emergency Response Units (ERU’s) which could reasonably be compared to militias. Even these units have been authorized by the Ministry of the Interior and their activities are monitored by coalition forces. The ERU’s have primarily been created in areas where the IP force had already reached the ceiling authorized by the Ministry of the Interior but additional personnel were deemed necessary to meet that locale’s security needs. Virtually all forms of ISF in Al Anbar are operating in cooperation with coalition forces in the province, are performing with increasing levels of professionalism and have been instrumental in reducing the influence of AQI and the levels of violence in western Iraq.
Next the cultural background: Al Anbar is 90% Sunni. Nearly all of its local and provincial leaders are Sunni. The central government (Baghdad) is dominated by Shiites. After decades of Sunni domination and the recent reversal of that status quo, neither side trusts the other. Rumors and conspiracy theories about the insidious designs of the other faction run rampant in both Anbar and Baghdad. Some of these rumors are probably true, but a steady diet of information from only one side or the other would give you an extremely skewed perception of reality.
To close the circle, one has to understand that the vast majority of reporters in Iraq operate out of Baghdad. (I encountered a total of three journalists on the ground in Al Anbar during the course of logging thousands of miles visiting nearly every unit in the province over a four month span.) Their information is decidedly “Baghdad-centric” and they are unlikely to ever get the perspective of either Marines or Sunni leaders from Al Anbar. What is disturbing is that journalists are repeating what they are being told by Shiite politicians without validating it or making any effort to balance it with other perspectives. Tremendous progress is being made in improving the security situation in Al Anbar; progress built largely on the soldiers of courageous young Marines, sailors and soldiers. Effective partnerships with Anbari leaders and security forces have also been a vital part of the equation. To characterize this success as a short-term deal with the devil, as recent reporting has done, is a slap at the young men and women who risk their lives to make a difference every day. None of this is meant to discount the perspective or concerns of Shiite leaders, but journalists have a duty to get both sides of a story before they report it as fact. I can’t help but wonder… if reporting on a topic I am familiar with is so replete with errors, how valid is the information being reported on any other topic? Getting the whole picture on this subject should be reminder to us all about the mainstream media’s coverage of Iraq… caveat emptor.
LtCol Wheeler is a history teacher and Marine reservist who deployed to Iraq from November 2006 to March 2007 for the Marine Corps History Division. The opinions herein are his alone and should not be construed as those of the United States Marine Corps or Department of Defense.