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Battle for hearts and minds is being won by US in Anbar

The name of Anbar will probably never appear on the list of battle honours of the US Marine Corps, along with Belleau Wood, the Argonne, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. But in its own way, the struggle there ranks with amongst the greatest successes in the history of the Corps.

A year ago, the Marines were close to defeat in Anbar; insurgents controlled whatever territory Marines did not stand on.

But the Corps is a curious beast; in addition to having impeccable fighting traditions, it is a remarkably cerebral organisation.

All its officers are university graduates, who are encouraged to think and analyse.

Some of them began to sense that many Iraqis were unhappy at what the lunatics of al-Qa'ida were doing to their country. For to the Iraqi mind, these atrocities were occurring in the very birthplace of civilisation, where water was tamed and agriculture invented, amid the alluvial gardens of Mesopotamia.

Bit by bit, informal agreements were reached; personal, man-to-man and eye-to-eye understandings -- binding through a concept common to Marine and Arab cultures: a profound sense of honour.

These were local, improvised tactics, not part of some grand policy from above.

But they then coalesced into a strategy when two British army officers serving in Baghdad, first Major General Graham Lamb, and then Major General Paul Newton, began to urge that the coalition's enemies must be made into their friends.

The allies could not fight the entire spectrum of Sunni, secularist, Baathist, Islamicist, Arabist and patriotic elements in Iraqi life, especially since many Iraqis individually embody many or even all of these conflicting loyalties.

How? Well, consider how at height of the Troubles, IRA, UDA men and British soldiers,

would peacefully share the same ferry on their way to passionately cheer on Manchester United or Liverpool.

Take that human ability to embody simultaneously contradictory loyalties and place it before two angled mirrors, one of secular Iraqi nationalism, the other of Islamic piety: and the result is a kaleidoscope of profound emotions: the trick for the allies now was to encourage those that would most likely bring peace to Iraq.

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Not many lessons learnt in Northern Ireland are of any use in Iraq; one, however, is. Whenever possible, minimise the use of violence.

When General Newton was serving with the Hampshire Regiment in Derry in 1990, his battalion was under strict orders not to shoot anyone, even armed terrorists.

Each killing, no matter how justified, had enormous social ramifications.

The same in Iraq: the terrorist-insurgent to the Americans was merely a patriot to his community. Better to woo and win than to kill and martyr.

Allied strategy was helped by the over-rapid expanse of al- Qa'ida.

The murderous riffraff that Saddam's Iraq produced in industrial quantities could certainly be recruited for any violent cause, without them knowing what they were joining or why.

They would no more understand Islamic morality than they would the venomous chemicals of the scorpion, a creature which they resemble in just one regard: they too cannot help their toxic nature. Hence the rapes, the beheadings, the torture, and the orgy of purposeless killings right across Anbar.

So General Newton and his team began to examine historical precedents where entire groups of fighting men had been persuaded to change sides.

They concluded that it could work in Iraq; but it would require brilliant execution by the US Marines. The term "gung-ho" is actually a USMC expression, learnt from Chinese soldiers in the Second World War.

In popular jargon, it has come to mean brainlessly eager, even violent.

In the Marine ethic, however, its meaning is closer to the original Chinese gungha, 'work together'. It was time to be peacefully gung-ho, in the most murderous corner of Iraq.

The Corps began implementing General Newton's policy of Strategic Engagement in Anbar just last May.

It was highly risky, because it actually meant arming people who the Marines had recently been fighting. Yet it worked.

Gradually, entire swathes of the province came over to the allies, aided by a gathering mood of National Awakening.

To be sure, the troop-surge helped.

So too did the extended tours-of-duty. Marines got to know their areas, and the people there, better.

Violence began to fall dramatically, and so too did deaths amongst coalition forces.

This coming spring, the USMC is to hand over a largely-pacified Anbar province to the Iraqi security forces.

In just seven months, General Newton's strategy has brought about perhaps the most brilliant reversal of military fortunes the world has seen since the Soviet recovery before the gates of Moscow in late 1941.

No-one is using the V-word, not least because in this kind of conflict, there is no final victory, any more than the Dutch would dream of announcing that the North Sea has, once and for all, been conquered.

When dams have endlessly to be remade, and sluice-gates maintained, the V-word has no meaning.

So we will just say that by the Marines' heroic achievements in Anbar they have built a dam; and on the secure polders beyond it, the Iraqi people can now, in metaphor at least, resume irrigating the alluvial gardens of Mesopotamia.

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