NAJAF, Iraq (AFP) — Iraq's holiest Shiite city of Najaf had a blunt message for visiting US Ambassador Ryan Crocker -- your arms are not welcome here, but your alms certainly are.
Najaf governor Assad Sultan Abu Gelal said he did not want the United States to replicate in his province the strategy of funding former Sunni insurgents, a move claimed to have reduced Al-Qaeda attacks in neighbouring Anbar.
"We told them (the Americans) we don't need an Awakening Council like in Anbar," Abu Gelal told reporters on Saturday in the presence of Crocker, who was on his second visit to Najaf this year.
"Because of the oppression we suffered under the previous regime we need to awaken our villages which were neglected" under the rule of Saddam Hussein.
The governor said he opposed arming militias and wanted to ensure that the remnants of militant groups were disarmed, not the other way round.
The Sahwa or "Awakening" movements consist of mainly Sunni former insurgents who joined the US side and are now battling Al-Qaeda. Such groups are armed and paid by the US military.
Abu Gelal said there had been no major attacks in Najaf, 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Baghdad, for years and that it was the safest place in Iraq.
The last major attack was in February last year, when a suicide car bomber killed at least 13 people at a police checkpoint.
The shrine city houses the highly venerated Imam Ali Mosque, and nearby is what is believed to the largest cemetery in the Muslim world where several prophets are buried.
Iraqi forces took responsibility for security in Najaf from US troops in December 2006, nearly four years after the invasion. It was the first Iraqi province to be returned to full Iraqi army control.
Abu Gelal said security is no longer the pressing issue it remains in some other Iraqi provinces, but that jobs and utilities are badly needed.
Crocker was in Najaf to open a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) office that will spend on infrastructure, economic activity and improve local skills.
Previously an office in Hilla, capital of adjoining Babil province, had responsibility for Najaf.
"It just didn't make sense" to operate from Hilla, Crocker said. "We need to move forward, not backwards."
Earlier Crocker opened another PRT office in the nearby Shiite holy city of Karbala to the north. "Part of the strategy is to strengthen moderates" in the Shiite population, he said.
American forces have faced stiff opposition from anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose power base is derived from Najaf. His Mahdi Army militia has been fighting US forces in Baghdad's Sadr City district.
Those battles have died down since the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, agreed a truce with the Sadrists on May 10 and deployed Iraqi soldiers in Sadr City, home to two million Shiites.
"The prime minister has clearly demonstrated that he is clearly determined to take (on) the extremists whether they are Shiite or Sunni," the ambassador said, adding that he recognised the "Sadr trend is an important element."
Crocker said he sees huge economic potential in Najaf for religious tourism. He wants international hotels to open in the city where an international airport is now under construction.
Millions of pilgrims visit Najaf annually -- the city is to Shiite Muslims what the Vatican is to Roman Catholics.
The ambassador said he wanted part of the 10 million dollars immediately available for work in Najaf province to help prepare for upcoming provincial elections.
The vote was originally expected by early October, but Crocker said that was "more aspirational."
"It is more important to get it right than to get it quickly," he said.
Abu Gelal, who is not running in the provincial elections, wants water supplies, sewerage systems and electricity for the province's 1.5 million population.
"We generate only 100 megawatts, but the demand is 400 megawatts," he said, adding that residents had electricity for only a few hours a day.
Providing power to the villages and improving living standards will also dissuade young people from taking up arms, he said of impoverished neighbourhoods where the militias traditionally trawled for recruits.
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