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'Anbar model' under fire

Four Iraqi Sheikhs tied to the US's anti-Al Qaeda plan were killed Monday in Baghdad.

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A suicide bomber's attack on an upscale Baghdad hotel Monday was a blow struck against the US plan to support and arm Sunni tribes in western Iraq.

The bomber walked up to a group of Sunni sheikhs and detonated his explosives belt. Among the 12 people killed were four senior tribal members linked to an American effort to combat Al Qaeda in Anbar Province.

The US military says that its strategy of building ties with the tribes has been effective in reducing attacks. But the approach is facing growing criticism from both Iraqi politicians and military experts. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has complained that the initiative is creating militias outside its control and undermining his plan to strengthen the central government's control over security forces.

"This may result in a temporary ally to help against Al Qaeda, but we are also creating more and better-armed militias, and we are working against what we have said is our principal reason for being [in Iraq,] which is to create and build up a strong central Iraqi government with a monopoly on handling the country's security," says Bruce Riedel, a career-long expert in the Middle East and counterterrorism with the Central Intelligence Agency and other federal agencies.

"This is a strategy fraught with risks," he says.

Some US military officers are questioning the wisdom of the strategy of working with the coalition of tribes known as the Anbar Salvation Council. Some officers in Iraq have noted they are now working with tribes whose members just a few months ago made up a large slice of the Iraqis they were arresting for attacks on US forces and other crimes.

But supporters say the strategy recognizes the reality of the tribes' powerful role in Iraqi society. Tribal sheikhs, or leaders, have already provided valuable intelligence about Al Qaeda operations and members in their areas. The tribes are anxious to change sides, they say, because Al Qaeda has used mass-casualty tactics like car bombings that the tribes find anathema.

US reliance on tribes is also supported by others who have already written off the possibility of seeing a strong central Iraqi government emerge.

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