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Marine Commander's Iraq Tour Ends With Optimism


This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Iran. I'm Renee Montagne. Turning now to provincial elections in Iraq, tomorrow's vote is the country's first major election since the violent days of 2005. And one place where there's a frenzy of activity is Anbar, the large expanse of western Iraq once a hotbed of the insurgency. Marine Major General John Kelly has spent the last year there in command of multinational forces. We've spoken with him occasionally during this, his third tour in Iraq, and are catching up with him now that he's just days away from returning home. General Kelly joined us from Al Asad Marine base. Hello.

Major General JOHN KELLY (U.S. Marine Corps; Commanding General, Multinational Force West): Renee, how are you?


MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you very much. Let's begin with these elections. You're there. Give us a thumbnail of what's going on in terms of campaigning for Saturday's elections there in Anbar.

Maj. Gen. KELLY: It's crazy, the campaigning. It's a joy to watch, and we should be ashamed, I think, as Americans, to know 100 percent of those eligible registered to vote. There's not a flat surface in the province that doesn't have multiple posters, some of the posters as big as billboards, but - you know, with the symbols of Arab culture - you know, white stallions in the background, and the coffee urn that is the symbol of hospitality in Iraq - very, very interesting.

MONTAGNE: Are the candidates able to actually get out and campaign in a classic way?

Maj. Gen. KELLY: They are, Renee. They're able to get out - here, they do campaigns things like, they walk through the markets shaking hands, and the same kind of thing you'd see in America. The key to survival anywhere, I think, is to not be predictable and not to do things on too much of a scheduled basis. But there is an occasional campaign rally.

MONTAGNE: You and I have talked about this over this past year, but in Anbar, the U.S. has nurtured partnerships with tribal leaders, where the sheiks helped defeat the insurgency. Aren't those tribal leaders really driving the election process there now?


Maj. Gen. KELLY: Other than to get the vote out, they're not driving it. But we've also nurtured, you know, some very, very strong relationships with everyone, not just the sheiks. An awful lot of the sheiks, frankly, are coming by or asking to see me and say goodbye, and give me the little going-away gifts they do. And all of them have said the strength of our personal relationships, and the influence we have out here, come from the fact that we never took sides. We worked with every sheik - the upper-tier sheiks all the way down to the lower-tier sheiks - with the police, the army, with the imams. Interesting enough, we're having announcements from the mosques on Friday that it is your responsibility to get out and vote. These are from the same mosques that harangued their followers to go out and kill Americans a year or two ago. They're telling them to get out and vote.

MONTAGNE: We've reported here at NPR, along with other media, that some of the tribal leaders in Anbar are practicing what you might call an extreme version of old-style Chicago politics - you know, buying support, or using what cash they have to spread some of the goodies around, demanding loyalty. Have you seen any of that?

Maj. Gen. KELLY: The officials in power certainly are using whatever patronage they have in terms of the smoke-filled-room kind of things you referenced to try to maintain power. But there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the performance of the elected government here now. So, I think the vast majority of the sheiks, they're unified in wanting to see a change in Anbar politically. They want their government to be more secular and certainly, more responsive. But don't see an awful lot of, as you've described, the sheiks working that angle. I see the in-power politicians doing it the most.

MONTAGNE: General Kelly, how do you feel about heading home after this third tour in Iraq? Relieved? A little sad?

Maj. Gen. KELLY: It seems like it was yesterday I came here until I start thinking about things, you know, over the past year, and then I realize it's been kind of an 18-hour-day, seven-day-a-week grind. And you know, I hope my wife doesn't listen to this, but in one way, I'd like to stay here six more months, but I think, probably, if I was here another six months, I'd want to stay another six months.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us, and safe travels home.

Maj. Gen. KELLY: Thanks a lot, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Major General John Kelly is returning home in a few days, after commanding multinational forces in western Iraq for the past year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.