ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — The meeting was billed as a routine press conference to show off a new government center in this town west of Baghdad — known to Iraqis for the infamous prison as well as for the deep distrust between the Shiite-led central government and the Sunni tribes that reside here.
But tribal leaders had something they wanted to say, and they weren't going to follow the day's script.
They wanted the government to spell out plans for public works projects they have promised to improve Abu Ghraib's living conditions. They reminded government officials of the necessity to partner with Sunni tribes to bolster security and stave off threats from insurgent cells.
"The problem in Iraq is with the politicians, not the sheiks," said Sheik Hussein Khamiss al Souhel, one of the tribal leaders in the Abu Ghraib area.
That freewheeling and good-natured conversation suited the U.S. Army officers who brought reporters to the site Saturday for the government center's ribbon cutting.
It drew together high-ranking officers in the mostly Shiite army, representatives of the Shiite led government and the Sunni tribal sheiks - an assemblage that the U.S. military hopes will turn into an alliance in order to sustain security gains of recent months.
At the ceremony, all sides said they'd work to make that happen with security and public projects.
Abu Ghraib is known to Americans because of the notorious prison on its outskirts where Saddam Hussein once torture his political opponents, and where U.S. troops were charged with gross abuses of detained Iraqi suspects. But it was also a flashpoint for Sunni-Shiite tensions in 2007. Sunnis felt targeted by the Shiite-led Iraq army, which was known as the Muthanna Brigade, named after a 7th century Islamic military leader, in the town.
The turning point came over the past year when Sunni tribesmen formed their own militias and began working with the U.S. military to force out extremists affiliated with Al Qaida Iraq. The U.S. military paid monthly stipends to about 100,000 men in the militias, known as the Sons of Iraq.
Those men are shifting to the Iraqi government payroll province by province. In Abu Ghraib, about 2,100 former members of the Sons of Iraq moved to the government payroll this month.
The $350,000 government center was built partly with cash from the U.S. military and partly with funds from Iraq's central government.
"This is a first — to get this cast of characters sitting together. This is the first time they're working together publicly," said Army Lt. Col. Jimmy Orrick, while standing at the back of a crowded room where the tribal leaders issued their questions and declarations to a panel of Iraqi government and Iraqi military officials.
Orrick, from Memphis, Tenn., spent the past year working with his Iraqi counterparts on a military transition team in Abu Ghraib. In that time, some of the tribal leaders wouldn't come into the town because it was considered unsafe.
"Security is stable now, and in the future, it will be much, much better," sheik Souhel said.
Souhel said, however, that those improvements feel tenuous.
Al Qaida in Iraq is still strong in Abu Ghraib, but it has retreated into sleeper cells could foster al Qaida in Iraq assaults throughout the country, Souhel said.
"When they want to make an operation somewhere, they start here," he said.
Americans aren't claiming their fight against al Qaida in Iraq is over, either.
Roads around this community were frequent sites for attacks against American patrols. They're down to one or two a week, and they produce fewer casualties.
"We're hunting them," said Lt. Col. Mario Diaz of Pasadena, Calif., who leads the 1st Battalion of the 21st Infantry Regiment on patrols in Abu Ghraib. Al Qaida is "getting so marginalized that they're losing their seats of power."
Baghdad province, which includes Abu Ghraib, was the first to move its Sons of Iraq militias to the government control. The U.S. is calling the transition a success so far with few hiccups in Baghdad province.
The next Sons of Iraq program moving to the Iraqi government's control is in Diyala province east of Baghdad.
Diyala remains relatively violent despite an Iraqi army crackdown in August. Like past Iraqi military efforts in Abu Ghraib, the Diyala push was perceived by some as unfairly targeted at Sunnis.
Diyala was the scene of a gruesome attack a week ago when a suicide bomber killed 15 people and injured 20 at a checkpoint.
Abu Ghraib hasn't seen that kind of violence in months, though plenty of signs Saturday showed security remains a top concern.
Cement blast walls painted sky blue surround the government center, painted burnt yellow. The U.S. military arrived at the opening in heavily armored vehicles.
Nonetheless, Iraqi officials see a window to build on their gains.
They promised programs to resettle displaced Iraqis who have fled their homes because of sectarian violence, and a new sewer system for Abu Ghraib residents.
"This kind of center will be the beginning," said Subhi al Mashdani, leader of Baghdad's commission on services. "All the sheiks and civilian authorities will have a role to play and we'll get back to the good things we had before."
(Ashton reports for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2008