BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Provincial elections must be held as soon as possible if violence is to be kept at bay in Anbar, once Iraq’s bloodiest province but now hailed as a major security success story, a top U.S. military official said.
Major-General John Kelly, commander of U.S. forces in the western province, said local polls, due to be held by October 1, could bolster peace but a delay could trigger a return to the violence which almost tore it apart.
“There is some potential for violence if citizens’ expectations for new elections are not realized,” Kelly told Reuters in an e-mail interview.
Most Sunni Arabs boycotted provincial polls in 2005. Many joined with al Qaeda to form the backbone of an insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi forces in Anbar, scene of some of the fiercest fighting since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
There has since been a remarkable turnaround in security in the province, in large part due to a decision by Sunni tribal leaders to turn against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda because of its indiscriminate killing and strict interpretation of Islam.
However, tribal chiefs and the men they ordered to protect the province against al Qaeda are now straining against a local political system they say does not represent them, and does little for reconstruction and employment in Anbar.
“If elections in Anbar are delayed until 2009, problems could result. Multi-National Forces West supports the holding of transparent and fair elections in the province as soon as the government of Iraq finds it practical,” Kelly added.
The U.S. military has said responsibility for security in Anbar could be handed over to Iraq as early as this month or April. Kelly said the handover would come “soon”.
“The elections are perceived as an opportunity to correct past mistakes associated with the Sunni decision not to participate in the last round of elections,” he said.
A provincial powers law, which will define the relationship between Iraq’s provinces and the central government, is seen as key to paving the way for fresh elections, but its passage has been blocked by Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Iraqi security forces already undertake the bulk of security operations in Anbar, and Kelly this week told reporters of his aim to close some of the province’s larger U.S. military bases.
Some 4,000 men patrol Anbar at the request of the tribal sheikhs, a movement the U.S. military backs, calling the men “concerned local citizens” (CLCs) or “Sons of Iraq”.
While tribal leaders’ frustration with local politicians grows, the CLCs increasingly complain of low pay, and demand to be drafted into the Iraqi security forces. What happens to CLCs after the U.S. withdraws from Anbar will be crucial.
Kelly said there was no promise made to CLCs to include them in Iraqi security forces, and instead highlighted the need for greater development in Anbar to provide jobs to absorb them. Tribal sheikhs say politicians have done nothing on this front.
“There is a correlation between unemployment and security and stability in Anbar ... a common request we hear from both the government and tribal leaders is to help them provide jobs for their people,” he said.
U.S. commanders say they expect about 20 percent of the 90,000-odd CLC members to be taken into Iraq’s security forces.
Al Qaeda and other insurgents remain a threat to Anbar, said Kelly, who predicted they could be planning major attacks to draw media attention back to their former stronghold.
The biggest challenge to a complete security handover was a lack of long-term logistical support for Iraqi forces, such as regular pay, fuel supplies and spare parts, he said.
Editing by Andrew Roche