Iraq's Second City: A Light at the End of the Tunnel?

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strode into Camp Courage, the heavily fortified U.S. military compound in the Sunni-dominated city of Mosul, pulled off her helmet and bullet-proof vest, smoothed her navy pantsuit and disappeared behind closed doors with Nineveh governor Duraid Kashmoula, a Sunni leader of legendary grit. Dozens of American soldiers billeted in what was once Saddam Hussein's garish palace on the Tigris milled about the marble halls, vying for a good camera angle to snap the rare American VIP visiting Iraq's second city, which has been plagued by insurgent and jihadist violence since 2003.

Rice insisted on visiting Mosul after receiving a report that it may have turned the corner, thanks to a combination of aggressive action by two American brigades posted in the city, a massive build-up of trained Iraqi policemen, who now number 15,000 for a city of around 1.4 million, and Sunni leaders who have been denouncing the insurgency and embracing the political process.

She's convinced that Mosul can be a showcase for the "clear-hold-build" strategy that she described to Congress last month. The idea is to drive insurgents out of designated areas and garrison troops there to allow new structures of government to take hold and deliver substantial reconstruction investment, in the hope that this would generate self-sustaining political and economic development that would eventually allow U.S. forces to leave.

Mosul was a surprise detour on Rice's long-scheduled swing through the Middle East, and it involved trips on a C-17 cargo plane and a Blackhawk helicopter. She went to take a firsthand look at the work of the first of 16 U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams to be deployed in Iraq, a program that she has been instrumental in developing. Each team will comprise about 50 State Department officials and the same number of military civil affairs personnel. Their mission will be to funnel money and expertise to grassroots Iraqi political leaders, business people and non-governmental organizations working to jump-start government services, schools, health care and security.

The Mosul team is already in business and, says deputy chief Col. Kenny Lee, a National Guardsman from Savannah, Georgia, "We're making a difference." The team, which lives inside Camp Courage, has built sewer, water and electrical systems, and is now helping local government officials establish and manage utilities, tax-collection, clinics and other public services. A reservist who works as a veterinarian back home is helping local herdsmen get their livestock vaccinated, and a farmer-soldier has become something like a county agricultural agent, advising on irrigation and cultivation methods.

Rice holds out great hope for the plan, which she calls "reconstruction with a small r." She adds, "It's state and local government that is closest to people and that is most responsible for the services and the institutions that are closest to people's lives," she said.

Rice was clearly exhilarated by her first trip to Mosul. She had visited Baghdad twice before, and flew there again after her Mosul stop. But she told reporters aboard her plane she much preferred talking to local pols and hands-on activists from small communities. "It's like the difference between visiting Birmingham and Washington," she said. The Birmingham native didn't leave much doubt about which city she preferred.

In the capital, Rice met with five prominent Sunnis of different political leanings: Deputy President Ghazi al-Yawar, whose base is among tribal leaders; Deputy Prime Minister Abd Mutlaq al-Juburi, a former Baathist general under Saddam; Ala Makki, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Iraqi Islamic party, the largest Sunni political group; Dr. Hatem al-Mukhlis, a secular New York-based doctor and ally of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi; and Sheikh Adnan al-Janabi, a secularist tribal leader and expert on petroleum.

"They used the opportunity to discuss their hopes for the elections ahead, their frustrations with the political process to date and their recommendations for how to improve the political process," says a State Department official who attended the meeting.

A senior official traveling with Rice says she found the session reasonable and constructive. Instead of raging and venting, the Sunni group offered some specific complaints and suggested solutions. In the first place, he said, they objected to large-scale U.S. counterinsurgency operations in Sunni strongholds, and suggested that the U.S. military avoid alienating the Sunni population by reducing the number of military sweeps and raids in the weeks before the Dec. 15 election.

They also protested that there were an insufficient number of Sunnis on governmental panels such as the elections board, and they expressed concerns about election fraud.

Rice heard the Sunnis out and, according to a State Department official, made no commitments. She did attempt to give the Sunnis a Politics 101 lesson. As the State Department official tells it, she urged them to work on turnout for the December elections, explaining that in politics, the last 10 or 15 percent is the hardest to get. The Sunnis had many more eligible voters than that, she said, so if they turned them out in force, they could wield considerable clout as the new government is being formed.

Friday night, Rice and her party returned to the Baghdad airport in darkened military Blackhawks. The city lights twinkled below. In fact, from the air it looked like any other Middle Eastern City. Rice's aides pointed out that semblance of normalcy as one more hopeful omen—though her entourage was unable to venture beyond the heavily guarded Green Zone, and even while they were there, a shooting attack o the embassy of Oman claimd two lives.

Rice also announced Friday that she would make another detour from her planned itinerary. On Monday, after meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and a memorial service marking the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Rice plans to stop in Amman, Jordan, to offer King Abdullah her condolences for Wednesday's suicide bombings, and also counter-terror assistance.