BAGHDAD – Growing impatience with the slow pace of work to improve basic services like electricity and water could threaten security gains in Iraq’s Anbar province, a former al Qaeda stronghold, the U.S. military said on Sunday.
With Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government deadlocked on the 2008 budget and other major laws, U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Greg Smith said that Iraq needed to focus on improving the lives of Sunni Arabs to take advantage of security gains.
“What’s necessary to come behind security are essential services … part of that is through the central government’s distribution of funds into the provinces,” Smith told reporters.
“There will clearly be impatience with the level of support when you consider just how far many of these areas need to come in terms of employment and so forth,” he said when asked if disaffected Sunni Arabs policing their own neighborhoods could become militias.
Millions of Baghdad residents still receive only fitful supplies of water and electricity after sectarian fighting and a Sunni Arab-led insurgency killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and devastated infrastructure.
Minority Sunni Arabs, dominant under Saddam Hussein, have long complained about being marginalized since Saddam’s fall.
Washington has set a series of “benchmark” laws it says are important to draw Sunni Arabs into the political process and away from the insurgency.
But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government has been unable to make serious headway on many of the laws, including provincial powers and an oil law, after the main Sunni Arab bloc walked out of cabinet last August.
Lawmakers resolved a dispute on Sunday over budget allocations for the largely autonomous region of Kurdistan, removing the main obstacle holding up passage of the $48 billion budget for 2008.
With attacks down 60 percent since last June, Washington is urging Maliki’s government to take advantage of improved security and make headway on those proposed laws.
Much of the improved security has been credited to the growth of neighborhood police units pioneered by Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs in Anbar who turned against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda in late 2006 because of its indiscriminate violence.
The neighborhood police, which the U.S. military calls concerned local citizens or CLCs, helped drive al Qaeda out of Anbar, once the most violent part of Iraq. Anbar residents now want basic services rebuilt to match security improvements.
“Iraq’s volunteer citizen groups have severely undermined al Qaeda,” Smith said. “Attacks against citizen groups have risen. Despite this, citizen groups have expanded their influence.”
The neighborhood units have become a key component of the U.S. military’s counter-insurgency strategy, which includes 30,000 extra U.S. troops who became fully deployed last June.
The U.S. military hopes about 20 percent of the roughly 80,000 CLC volunteers will be integrated into the Iraqi security forces but many Iraqis fear they will turn their guns on Shi’ites if Iraq’s sectarian clashes reignite.
Ten suspected al Qaeda insurgents were killed in clashes with local security volunteers in northern Iraq on Sunday, the U.S. military said. Five of the volunteers were also killed.
Smith said two documents captured recently during raids against al Qaeda showed that the neighborhood patrols had badly weakened the group, which the U.S. military regards as the greatest single threat to peace in Iraq.
“The Islamic state … is faced with an extraordinary crisis, especially in Anbar,” Smith read in an excerpt from what he said had been written by a senior Al Qaeda commander in Iraq.
“Improved security is paralyzing many Al Qaeda security operatives, forcing them to sit idle, afraid to move … Foreign terrorists are becoming disillusioned and disgruntled,” he said.
Most al Qaeda fighters in Iraq are Iraqis but the military says its leaders are mainly foreign.
Smith said he was also encouraged by an order issued by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr this week telling his feared Mehdi Army militia to keep observing a six-month ceasefire Sadr declared last August.