Bush in Anbar

He’s going to speak from Al Asad Air Base at 12:30 or so. We’ll probably have a few minutes of highlights. The choice of Anbar over Baghdad is symbolic, of course, to call attention to the security gains made there since last year. He’s in town for six hours but he’s got a full plate:

Despite what military officials describe as disagreements within the ranks of the Pentagon and U.S. military over when and how quickly to carry out any U.S. troop reduction in Iraq, the official said he believed senior U.S. military and defense leaders plan to give “collective” rather than independent recommendations to Bush. In addition to meetings with Maliki, Gates and other military officials also plan to meet with Iraqi leaders including President Jalal Talabani, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.

The most important meeting arguably is with none of the above. He’s going to meet with some of the local sheikhs who’ve helped tame the province by joining forces with the U.S. to encourage them to join the political process. It’s part of what Bush’s team calls “bottom-up reconciliation,” i.e. empowering the Sunnis who boycotted the elections last time and who have some actual sway on the ground over the population instead of the current crop of Sunni “leaders” who don’t have much sway over anyone. The trick is getting Maliki to reach out by sending reconstruction aid instead of hoarding it for the Shiites. Iyad Allawi could probably be counted on to do at least that; Maliki, not so much since he fears (not unreasonably) that the money will be used to buy weapons for the looming civil war. Expect him to do the same thing he’s done with the surge in Baghdad — give Bush all the assurances he needs that he’s on board with the plan and then quietly let the Shiites go about doing what they need to do to press their advantage.

There is some welcome and surprising news out today to coincide with the trip. Meanwhile, lots of photos of this photo op on the wires at Yahoo.

Update: Meanwhile, in Basra, Iraqis celebrate as Shiite goon squads replace the departing British.

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