Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made an unprecedented visit Tuesday to Ramadi, the capital of the unstable Anbar province.
Ramadi had long been a major stronghold of Iraq's Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida in Iraq.
But over the past few months, many key Sunni tribal leaders have turned against the militants. They are now cooperating with U.S. troops and Iraq's Shiite-led government.
Prime Minister Maliki didn't arrive in Ramadi on his own. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, took him there by helicopter. Once they landed, Petraeus slipped out the left side of the chopper — out of view; Maliki exited from the right side in front of the waiting television cameras, with no Americans in sight.
Maliki told reporters it was the first time he'd been to Ramadi in more than 30 years. Local tribal sheiks, many dressed in long brown robes, turned out to greet him. Many were armed with petitions asking for more security and improvements in local services. Maliki said his government was prepared to help.
Maliki's meeting with Sunni tribal sheiks in Ramadi is being viewed as largely symbolic, but an important step nonetheless.
Ramadi's residents weren't always so friendly or so ready. But the mood here changed after a series of al-Qaida attacks targeting Iraqis.
At a tribal meeting, Sheik Farhan said that the "terrorists" became arrogant, and the people of Anbar no longer support them. Gen. Petraeus says this new attitude gives Iraq's Sunnis an opportunity to become a real political force, alongside the Shiites and the Kurds.