A few years ago, few places on Earth were as hellish as Iraq’s Anbar Province. Spanning the country’s western desert, Anbar is best known by its major cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, both of which became home bases for Al Qaeda-linked terrorists who flooded across Iraq’s border with Syria and joined with Sunni insurgents to carry out bombings, executions, kidnappings, and torture across the country. A dire Marine intelligence report leaked in September 2006 warned that Anbar was lost, with its government institutions “disintegrated or … thoroughly corrupted and infiltrated by al Qaeda in Iraq.” American war planners contemplated withdrawing troops from the province, and giving up on Anbar altogether.
Since then, Anbar has made an amazing turnaround. Even as the Marines were contemplating an exit, Anbar’s tribal leaders began turning against the foreign jihadis and aligning with the Americans in what came to be known as the Sunni Awakening—a critical step in putting down the insurgency nationwide. By late 2009, Anbar was stable enough that the province turned its focus to rebuilding. To that end, the U.S. government spent roughly $50,000 last year to finance a promotional magazine hyping Anbar’s economic potential. Published by the British trade magazine FDI, which is owned by the Financial Times, the self-described “special report” touted prospects for investment in Anbar’s agriculture, its infrastructure, and its vast reserves of silica. FDI even hinted that tourism might be one of Anbar’s “most promising sectors for investment.” (Isn’t it time you took the kids to Lake Habbaniyah?)
Unfortunately, not all of Anbar’s vital signs are positive. One of them—the story of its governor, Qasim Al Fahadawi—suggests that the optimism for the province may be dangerously premature. And if prospects for Anbar are dimming once again, then so are the prospects for Iraq.
I met Fahadawi during a mid-December visit to Anbar in the company of Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. An engineer and businessman who studied in Germany, Fahadawi fled Iraq in 2006 for the United Arab Emirates, where he enjoyed a life of relative peace and prosperity. He returned after the Sunni Awakening drove out Al Qaeda. On his arrival home, he told one Iraqi website, “I felt like [the province] had been hit by a nuclear bomb. The vital facilities have been destroyed and peoples’ mentalities have been infected.” Fahadawi was heartbroken at the lost potential: “Iraq should be the richest country in the Middle East,” he told another interviewer, “and Anbar should be the richest province in Iraq.”
Since becoming Anbar’s governor in April of 2009, Fahadawi has energetically pursued that vision, working what he says are 18-hour days to jump-start the province’s economy. Fahadawi’s secular nature and business acumen have made him an appealing figure to the west. In August, FDI magazine honored him as the “2009 Global Personality of the Year” for his efforts to win foreign investment everywhere from Great Britain to Turkey. (The same award was subsequently hailed in a U.S. military press release, which did not note that the U.S. government had paid FDI to promote Anbar’s economic potential.)
In Ramadi, Mullen and Fahadawi sat down for a chat. The governor, who has a bushy salt-and-pepper mustache and wore a western business suit and tie, described his bright vision of Anbar’s economic future. The province had begun to export cucumbers, Fahadawi explained. (It was a fact of social as well as economic significance, given that al Qaeda leaders in the province had imposed a bizarre prohibition on women buying the vegetable, deemed too suggestive of male anatomy). To pursue this and other plans, Fahadawi told Mullen he needed loan guarantees of $100 million or more. Mullen demurred, with perhaps a slight smirk. The joint chiefs chairman explained that he does not control the U.S. banking system.
“The best assurance I can offer you is improvement in the security environment here,” Mullen said.
“Security, we can say, is almost achieved right now,” Fahadawi said. “But my vision to achieve security is economics.”
“I completely agree,” Mullen replied, stirring a sugary cup of Iraqi tea.
That was December 18. Less than two weeks later, on the morning of December 30, a car bomb exploded at a checkpoint near Fahadawi's office in Ramadi. Against the advice of his bodyguards, Fahadawi went outside to survey the scene. A few minutes later a man in an Iraqi police uniform approached his entourage and blew himself up, killing several more people. Initial reports said that Fahadawi, who was seen laying on the ground with his face burned, was one of them. But Fahadawi was lucky. He was rushed to a Baghdad hospital with severe injuries to his leg and arm, and lost a hand--but he lived. He is now receiving treatment in the United States, and on his feet again with the help of a walker. Doctors will soon fit him for a prosthetic hand. In an email, a military official with Fahadawi reports that the governor says "this explosion has made him more determined than ever to return to Anbar and finish what he has started." *
The near-death experience of an optimist like Fahadawi may be a cautionary tale about the future of Iraq. As the United States prepares to begin a major troop withdrawal later this year, which will have all American troops out of the country by the end of 2011, optimists are describing a stable country ready to stand on its own. But Iraq still endures persistent bombings throughout the country. Two days of explosions on January 25 and 26 in Baghdad killed 75 people—just the latest in a series of attacks in the capital. American officials call such bombings the last gasp of Al Qaeda-linked terrorists determined to destabilize the government and sow fear before upcoming parliamentary elections on March 7. They are heartened, they say, that the bombings haven’t pushed the Sunnis and Shiites back towards 2006-style civil war.
But regular attacks like these suggest that Iraq’s security forces aren’t ready to protect the country on their own. Not in Baghdad, and not in Anbar Province. And that means that Iraq is still a long way from recovery. Foreign investment is hardly likely to pour into a province where the governor’s life can’t be guaranteed. It could be a long while before Qasim Al Fahadawi’s vision of Iraq as a wealthy country is anything more than a cruel mirage.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.