From NBC's Libby Leist
As part of an administration-wide public relations effort to show progress in Iraq since the surge of U.S. troops in January, the State Department today organized a briefing for reporters to highlight what they believe is a success story in Anbar province.
State and DOD Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leaders working in Ramadi, Anbar described many improvements in a city they found devastated when a new group of 6,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines arrived in March, but they also admit that the Al Qaeda threat is "always a worry" and that there is no planning for what might happen if U.S. troops are scaled back.
In March, 80 percent of the people did not have water and power, the leaders said, buildings were destroyed and al Qaeda was still a force.
Major Lee Suttee, the lead DOD official for the Ramadi PRT, said everything began to change in April. He credits the combination of local Iraqi police, the Iraqi Army and coalition forces working together as the key to stabilizing the city. Suttee believes the local sheikhs were crucial in the effort to bring the Iraqi police into the mix and turn back support for al Qaeda.
"The fighting stopped. And when it came to a stop, it literally stopped, about April 22nd," Suttee said.
Since then, the PRT's have worked to help the local officials build their government and to bring back essential services to the people there. Suttee noted that there have been 102 days without attacks (though that is not consecutive days). The military is finding weapons caches at a greater rate, he said, and PRT officials are able to travel in two-vehicle convoys down from four vehicles several months ago.
State Department official Kristin Hagerstrom reported that she is now able to walk on the streets and, for example, "you can buy an ice cream cone."
Despite the successes, the officials did admit that the return of al Qaeda remains a serious concern. Hagerstrom said, "It's always a worry. It's something ... everyone's alert about at all times."
Their hope is that that local leaders and police will continue to fight back. "...The tribal leaders and the people of Ramadi, by joining with coalition forces, have basically signed a death warrant, all of them. If al Qaeda comes back, they will kill them all, and they know that. So they're all in it together," she said.
When Suttee was asked whether he was worried troop withdrawals would threaten to erase the progress that has been made, he said he can't worry about that.
"We're trying to strike while the iron's hot," he said. "We feel that if you build enough of this feeling that there's positive hope for the future in the population, that regardless of whether there's five battalions or one battalion here, that the city, with their well-trained Iraqi police, will be able to do the job."