RAMADI, IRAQ — After spending some time in and around Baghdad with the United States military I visited the city of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s notoriously convulsive and violent Anbar Province, and breathed an unlikely sigh of relief. Only a few months ago Ramadi was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It was another “Fallujah,” and certainly the most dangerous place in Iraq. Today, to the astonishment of everyone — especially the United States Army and Marines — it is perhaps the safest city in all of Iraq outside of Kurdistan.
In August 2006 the Marine Corps, arguably the least defeatist institution in all of America, wrote off Ramadi as irretrievably lost. They weren’t crazy for thinking it. Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq had moved in to fight the Americans, and they were welcomed as liberators by a substantial portion of the local population.
I wrote recently that Baghdad, while dangerous and mind-bogglingly dysfunctional, isn’t as bad as it looks on TV. Almost everywhere I have been in the Middle East is more “normal” than it appears in the media. Nowhere is this more true than in Beirut, but it is true to a lesser extent in Baghdad as well. Baghdad isn’t a normal city, but it appears normal in most places most of the time. Ramadi, in my experience, is the great exception. Ramadi was worse than it appeared in the media.
Baghdad suffers from political paralysis, a low-grade counterinsurgency, and a very slow-motion civil war. It doesn’t look or feel like a war most of the time, although it does sometimes. What happened in Ramadi wasn’t like that. It wasn’t the surreal sort-of war that still simmers in Baghdad. Two American colonels in charge of the area compared the battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad.
“We were engaged in hours-long full-contact kinetic warfare with enemies in fixed positions,” said Army Major Lee Peters.
“There were areas where our odds of being attacked were 100 percent,” Army Captain Jay McGee told me. “Literally hundreds of IEDs created virtual minefields.”
“The whole area was enemy controlled,” said Marine Lieutenant Jonathan Welch. “If we went out for even a half-hour we were shot at, and we were shot at accurately. Sometimes we took casualties and were not able to inflict casualties. We didn’t know where they were shooting from.”
Anbar Province is the heart of Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, and Ramadi is its capital. Iraq has 18 provinces, but until recently almost a third of all U.S. casualties were in Anbar alone.1.3 million people live there, mostly along the Euphrates River, and roughly a third live in Ramadi. Most of the rest live in the also notorious and now largely secured cities of Haditha, Hit, and Fallujah.
I haven’t visited the other cities yet because I wanted to begin in the province’s largest and most important city. Ramadi isn’t the most important solely because it’s the capital or because it’s the largest. It is also the most important because Al Qaeda declared it “The Capital of the Islamic State of Iraq.”
“You have to understand what every side’s end state is in Iraq to really understand what’s going on,” said Captain McGee in his Military Intelligence headquarters at the Blue Diamond base just north of the city. An enormous satellite photo of Ramadi and the surrounding area that functioned as a map took up a whole wall. Local streets were relabeled by the military and given very American names: White Sox Road, Eisenhower Road, and Pool Hall Street for example.
“The ideology of AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is to establish the Islamic Caliphate in Iraq,” he said. “In order for them to be successful they must control the Iraqi population through either support or coercion.”
Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq
Some in the United States are unconvinced that Al Qaeda was really at the center of the conflict in Anbar. So I asked Colonel John Charlton how the Army knows Al Qaeda is really who they have been dealing with. He was supremely annoyed by the question.
“We know it’s Al Qaeda,” he said. There is no controversy whatsoever about this in Iraq. My question seemed to him as if it had come from another planet. “They self-identify as Al Qaeda. We didn’t give them that name. That’s what they call themselves. We have their propaganda CDs which have Al Qaeda written all over them.”
It’s not a dumb question, though, if a substantial number of Americans aren’t sure what’s going on in a bottomlessly complicated country eight or more times zones away. And not everyone who underestimated Al Qaeda’s presence is a fool.
I briefly met Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Eric Holmes from Dallas, Texas, while he was on his way home after volunteering to serve in Ramadi for six months. “I didn’t realize until I got here that the problem in Anbar Province was 100 percent Al Qaeda,” he said. “The old Baath Party insurgency here is completely finished. That war was won and Americans, including me, had no idea it even happened.”
Al Qaeda was initially welcomed by many Iraqis in Ramadi because they said they were there to fight the Americans. The spirit of resistance against foreign occupiers was strong. But the Iraqis got a lot more in the bargain than simply resistance.
“Al Qaeda came in and just seized people’s houses,” said Army Captain Phil Messer from Nashville, Tennessee. “They said we’re taking your house to use it against the Americans. Get out.”
“Every mosque in the city was anti-American,” Captain McGee said. “They were against us, but Al Qaeda made it even worse by ordering them to broadcast anti-American propaganda at gunpoint.”
A U.S. Army armored personnel carrier on Market Street
“Market Street [the main street downtown] was completely controlled by Al Qaeda,” Lieutenant Welch said. “They rolled down the streets, pointed guns at people, and said we are in charge. They had crazy requirements for the locals. They weren’t allowed to cut their hair. Girls were banned from going to school. They couldn’t shave or smoke. One guy defiantly lit a cigarette and they shot him four times.”
Sergeant Kenneth Hicks from Portland, Oregon, took me on my first foot patrol in the city. We dismounted our Humvees near Market Street in the center of one of Al Qaeda’s old strongholds.
“This is an infamous sniper corner,” he said before we had even walked twenty feet.
An infamous sniper corner
“A few months ago we would be dead standing here,” he said. “But there were so many IEDs on this street, and so much piled up garbage, that we could only go out on foot.”
After Al Qaeda took over Ramadi, the local government was replaced with terrorists who only cared about fighting Americans and violently suppressing Iraqis. Al Qaeda was in charge, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say they were the new government. None of the basic city government services functioned. There was no electricity, no running water, no telephone service, and no garbage collection. Every single local business closed down. The city could not have been any more broken.
“Ramadi didn’t even have a city government until April,” said Colonel Charlton. “They couldn’t come to work because of security. And the city was down to zero electricity just three months ago.”
“I’m sure it looks to you like there’s lots of trash all over the place,” Sergeant Hicks said. “But there is massive cleanup going on. There really is a lot less of it now than there was a few months ago.”
We walked a block or so and came to a series of concrete barriers blocking vehicle traffic.
“We put up those walls to keep the rat line [enemy logistics route] out in the open desert from coming into the city,” he said.
Kids saw us and scattered. Nobody needed to tell me that was bad.
“Look out,” Sergeant Hicks said in case I didn’t know. “It’s not a good sign when kids run.”
Children who run at the sight of American soldiers often know something the soldiers do not. They may know an explosion or an insurgent attack of some other kind is imminent.
The same is true in Afghanistan. Soldiers know they can gauge the friendliness of an area by the response to their presence of its children. When kids run up and greet them, the area is friendly. When children just stand there and watch, the area is neutral or possibly hostile. When they flee it usually means the area is violently hostile and the kids need to get out of the way of the fighting that may be coming.
Sergeant Hicks raised his weapon and pointed it across the street.
I suspect he was more worried than I was. Ramadi is a friendly city that has been cleared and pacified. The children were most likely running out of sheer habit. They lived right in the heart of what was recently Al Qaeda’s main stronghold.
Nothing exploded and nobody shot at us. The first kids I ever saw in Ramadi ran from us, but it never once happened again. Only two or three minutes later, children excitedly greeted us as they did every other time I stepped out into the streets of the city and the surrounding countryside.
“Three months ago people turned their backs to us,” Sergeant Hicks said. “They refused to even smile. They were like beaten dogs.”
We walked down Market Street.
Small shops had re-opened since the war ended, but there was still a substantial amount of visible damage.
“That pile of rubble at the end of the streets was an observation post,” he said.
Anbar’s Most Wanted
“Those posters work,” Sergeant Hicks said when he saw me taking a photo of one of Anbar’s Most Wanted posters. “People are giving us information. And, you know, these people really open up to you, automatically, when you’re in their houses. They’ll just start telling you what it was like living under Saddam — the most unbelievable things.” And this is a part of Iraq that was favored by Saddam Hussein. It was much worse in the Shia and Kurdish parts of the country.
I also went on patrol with Captain Phil Messer. He was the most hospitable officer I met in Iraq. He and his men lived in a large rented house about the size of a university co-op in the Hay al Adel neighborhood. He gave me his private room next to the Tactical Operations Center and slept in a crowded room with some of the other soldiers so I would be as comfortable as possible. “I’ve been immersed in this culture a long time,” he said. “The Arab code of hospitality is starting to wear off on me.” I don’t think he was sucking up for good press. He is just a nice guy.
Captain Phil Messer
“What do you want to see in Ramadi?” he said.
“Destruction,” I said. “I need to photograph what the war did to this place.”
So he took me out to see the destruction. He did not ask me why or what I would do with the pictures.
We headed out to “Route Michigan” in Humvees.
“When we first started using this road,” he said, “we thought it was a dirt road. Then we cleaned it up and, sure enough, there was asphalt under it. Route Michigan was hit by IEDs and gunfire every single time a convoy went down it. There was a foot and a half of water on it because the IEDs shattered so many water mains. Our vehicles were not allowed to travel on it unless they were specifically on a combat mission.”
Most of the city’s buildings and houses are more or less intact, but some areas have been completely destroyed. I toured the destruction in South Lebanon at the end of last year, but I didn’t see anything there on the scale of what happened in Ramadi. Nor did I see anything even remotely like this in Baghdad.
“We took the gloves off,” said Captain Dennison from where he described as Middle of Nowhere, Kentucky. “We had to.”
I saw dozens of buildings that look like those pictured above, and this was after the majority of the wreckage had been cleared.
At least it did not all go to waste. The twisted rebar was saved, and a young man amazingly was able to straighten it out with a tool made just for that purpose.
It looks bad, and it is bad. It’s worse than it looks, actually, because the destruction goes on and on and on in large swaths. Areas where rubble has been cleared look like parking lots, and there are literally miles of such areas in Ramadi along the main streets.
Cleared rubble, Ramadi
The large blank area in this picture was once dense with buildings
But just around the corner from the picture above is a bustling market that looks totally normal, as if nothing eventful ever happened there.
A bustling market right next to a scene of vast devastation
I spent the next day at a Joint Security Station (JSS), a tiny outpost in a rented house where American soldiers and Marines live with Iraqi soldiers in the heart of the city.
Army Lieutenant Markham from Shreveport, Louisiana, met me first thing in the morning at Camp Corregidor and drove me over there.
“What’s the plan today?” I said.
“There’s this thing — I don’t know if you’ve heard of it — called the GWOT,” he said jokingly. “The Global War on Terrorism. We have to win it.”
“And what about me?” I said.
“I’ll be taking you over to the JSS and leaving you with Lieutenant Hightower,” he said. “Think of it as me dropping you off at school.”
“Ok, Dad,” I said. “Which truck am I riding in?”
Lieutenant Markham says hello to Ramadi’s children
When we arrived at the JSS I was horrified. The building had sustained battle damage from the war. Everything was hot and filthy. The stairs were broken. The bathroom was covered in spider webs and dried mud left over from the last time it had rained. Aside from a few select rooms, there was no air conditioning. It’s hard to describe how awful that is in Iraq in August. Somebody told me it was 138 degrees that day. It’s hotter in Ramadi than even in Baghdad, and it’s made worse by the fact that the JSS didn’t have showers. “I once went three months without a shower,” a soldier told me outside. Amazingly, the place didn’t smell bad.
The toilets didn’t work and there were no porta-johns, so everyone had to use plastic bags and wash up with bottled water. “If you let the water from the sink get on your skin,” a soldier told me, “there’s a ten percent chance you’ll get a horrible rash.”
American and Iraqi soldiers live in this place. “Most Americans have no idea how bad we have it here,” someone told me, and I’m certain he’s right. But most of them didn’t complain. Life is a lot better in Ramadi now that the war is over, regardless of the heat and living conditions.
“Can I take pictures of this place?” I said to Sergeant Hicks. Only in the rarest of circumstances does the military object to journalists taking pictures, and even then only when the photographs might help the other side plan attacks.
“Hmm,” Sergeant Hicks said.
“Uh,” Lieutenant Markham said.
“It’s not that important,” I said.
“Just make sure there aren’t any full-page spreads showing the layout of this place so suicide bombers would know how to hit us,” Sergeant Hicks said.
“Yeah, Mike,” Lieutenant Markham said. “What are you trying to pull here?” He didn’t sound like he was joking, but he probably was. He’s just a dead-pan kind of guy who could have rubbed me the wrong way, but didn’t.
He introduced me to Marine Lieutenant Andrew Hightower from Houston, Texas. Hightower had recently returned from three months on medical leave.
“What happened?” I said.
“I got blown up,” he said.
“You don’t look blown up,” I said.
“I got hit with a 120 mortar round IED,” he said. “Near Market Street. I got shrapnel all in my leg.”
“How did that feel?” I said. Sometimes people don’t feel pain even when they are shot, so I didn’t know.
“It felt like someone was pushing a hot iron onto my skin,” he said. “Then I felt the blood running down my leg.” The doctors gave him the pieces of shrapnel which he now keeps in a jar.
“Lieutenant Hightower is a terrific Marine officer,” Lieutenant Markham said. “He gives me hope for the future of the Marine Corps.”
He said that so seriously I thought he might not be joking this time.
“Did you actually worry about the future of the Marine Corps before you met him?” I said.
“Well, yes kind of,” he said. “The Marines are just…really different from the Army.” He said it with such gravity and disappointment and concern and shook his head.
I couldn’t possibly care less about the rivalry between the Army and the Marines, although I was occasionally asked by members of each which branch I preferred.
One Marine tried to get an Iraqi Army soldier to take sides.
“Which do you think is better?” he said to the Iraqi soldier. “Army or Marines?”
“The Navy is best,” said the Iraqi.
The Marine was taken aback. “The Navy?” he said.
“Yes, Navy,” said the Iraqi.
The Marine looked slightly annoyed when I laughed.
Lieutenant Markham handed me over to Lieutenant Hightower who was supposed to take me out on a patrol. But a dust storm blew in from the desert and we were grounded. Soldiers and Marines aren’t allowed to go on patrols when the air is “condition red” because medi-vac helicopters have a hard time evacuating anyone who gets wounded. So I was stranded and spent as much of the day as I could talking to those who fought and survived the battle of Ramadi.
“We have genuinely good relations with the Iraqi Army here,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “We live in the same rooms. They are almost like my own soldiers. We go to their funerals.”
Every soldier and Marine I met in Anbar Province spoke highly of and with great admiration for their Iraqi counterparts. It was a completely different world from the Baghdad area where so many Americans hold the Iraqis in contempt as corrupt incompetents who let themselves be infiltrated by terrorists and insurgents.
“Some of the Iraqi Police here were insurgents, though,” he said. “We sent them to Jordan for training and when they got there they had serious background checks. Some of them were yanked out of the IP and sent to prison.”
So there has been a weeding out process, unlike in many parts of Iraq. And some of the police were insurgents who switched sides when they realized Al Qaeda, and not the Americans, were the real enemy.
“The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police here are amazing,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “For a long time they weren’t being paid, but they risked their lives every day and did their jobs anyway.”
They are being paid now, but not very much. Iraqi Police officers only earn 300 or so dollars per month.
“What are you doing here anyway?” he said. “Not much happens in Ramadi anymore. Nothing blows up anymore. There’s no blood and guts here.”
There certainly was blood and guts, though. Just a few blocks from the station is a soccer stadium that was used during the war as a mass grave site.
“We found bodies buried in the middle of the soccer field by insurgents,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “After the war ended the Iraqis had to unearth the bodies. They called it Operation Graveyard.”
The Ramadi soccer field, formerly a mass grave site, now a sports venue again
“That was its official name?” I said.
“That was its official name,” he said. “Now there’s a soccer game there every night at 5:00.” I had plans to attend the game that night myself, but it was cancelled.
“There was another soccer field north of the city in the ‘Sofia’ area,” he said, “a kids’ soccer field. It was also used as a dump site. AQI killed civilians by castrating them, stuffing their genitals in their mouths, and cutting off their heads. Al Qaeda killed a lot more civilians than they ever killed soldiers.”
Captain Jay McGee concurred. “Suicide car bombers rarely attacked the coalition,” he said, meaning Americans. “They almost always attacked Iraqi security forces and civilians. They know the U.S. will leave eventually, but AQI ultimately must fight Iraqis and destroy Iraqi institutions in order to prevail.”
They did kill Americans, though, certainly. And they recruited and paid willing local Iraqis to help them.
“To get paid by AQI for killing Americans,” Lieutenant Hightower said, “the attack must be videotaped. They often used tracer rounds so they could prove it was real. We found whole piles of these tapes when we cleaned the city out. We found and killed a sniper just northeast of the city. He had all kinds of video tapes of himself shooting and killing American soldiers.”
Snipers were everywhere in Ramadi. Some were committed Al Qaeda fighters, and others were just paid to help out.
“One of my soldiers was shot in the head through his helmet by a sniper,” he said. High powered bullets will pierce helmets if they hit at a head-on angle. “The sniper was shooting from behind a curtain in a van. He was a teacher at a women’s vocational school by day and a sniper for extra money at night. AQI just recruits people who need money and hires them as insurgents as if it were a regular job.”
Conveniently for Al Qaeda, the economy in Ramadi utterly disintegrated during the war. Almost everybody needed money, and even those who did have money had a hard time buying anything since all the stores had closed down.
Mortars were a big problem, too, and they came from random directions.
“AQI would launch three mortars from a truck,” Lieutenant Hightower said, “then drive off. We usually couldn’t shoot back fast enough before they had scurried off somewhere else.”
The worst, though, were the IEDs. It’s the same everywhere in Iraq.
“They used acid to liquefy the asphalt and bury the IEDs under the road,” he said. “Then they would push the liquid asphalt back into the hole. Their work looked almost perfect. You could tell where they had buried the IEDs if you looked closely enough, but the roads are filthy and the evidence was barely detectable when we were driving. We found a lot of them with slow-moving road clearance vehicles that use metal detector arms.”
He had to take a phone call, so I walked around the station and noticed that the filthy place was suddenly cleaner than it was when I arrived just a few hours before. The Iraqis were hard at work fixing the place up since they couldn’t go on patrols while the dusty air was still at condition red. Cases of MREs and bottled water were more organized. The floors had been swept clear of dust. Soon the station might actually be suitable for people to live in.
“Al Qaeda hit a six month old baby with a mortar when they were trying to hit us,” Lieutenant Hightower said when he got off the phone. “They also hit a six year old girl. We went in and medi-vacced the victims, and we made lots of friends that day. It was a clarifying experience for the Iraqis.”
It was a clarifying experience for the Iraqis because they had been raised on virulent anti-American conspiracy theories and propaganda from Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. They truly believed the Army and Marines were there to steal their oil and women. Americans saving the lives of children wounded by fellow Sunni Arabs who passed themselves off as liberators was not what many Iraqis ever expected to see.
“The six month baby had shrapnel in his head,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “The six year old girl had shrapnel in her leg. It was the most disturbing thing I’ve seen since I got here.” This from a man who saw one of his own men shot in the head by a sniper.
Ramadi is in terrible shape even now. If it were an American city it would be declared in a state of emergency. Months of accumulated garbage is still piled up everywhere. The electricity still isn’t on for even twelve hours a day — although the eight of hours the city does get — because, as Colonel Charlton says, Al Qaeda no longer blows up the electrical towers — certainly beats the one hour of electricity they get each day in Baghdad. Sewage flows in the street. The economy has a pulse, but four months ago it was at zero.
“The city completely bottomed out,” Colonel Holmes told me. “It hit absolute rock bottom.”
Ramadi was in worse shape even than Gaza. And Ramadi was once one of the loveliest cities in all of Iraq.
Nineteen Arab tribes led by sheikhs live in Anbar Province. In June of 2006, nine of those tribal sheikhs cooperated with the Americans, three were neutral, and seven were hostile.
In October of last year the tribal leaders in the province, including some who previously were against the Americans, formed a movement to reject the savagery Al Qaeda had brought to their region. Some of them were supremely unhappy with the American presence since fighting exploded in the province’s second largest city of Fallujah, but Al Qaeda proved to be even more sinister from their point of view. Al Qaeda did not come as advertised. They were militarily incapable of expelling the American Army and Marines. And they were worse oppressors than even Saddam Hussein. The leaders of Anbar Province saw little choice but to openly declare them enemies and do whatever it took to expunge them. They called their new movement Sahawa al Anbar, or the Anbar Awakening.
Sheikh Sattar is its leader. Al Qaeda murdered his father and three of his brothers and he was not going to put up with them any longer. None of the sheikhs were willing to put up with them any longer. By April of 2007, every single tribal leader in all of Anbar was cooperating with the Americans.
“AQI announced the Islamic State of Iraq in a parade downtown on October 15, 2006,” said Captain McGee. “This was their response to Sahawa al Anbar. They were threatened by the tribal movement so they accelerated their attacks against tribal leaders. They ramped up the murder and intimidation. It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city.”
Sheikh Jassim’s experience was typical.
“Jassim was pissed off because American artillery fire was landing in his area,” Colonel Holmes said. “But he wasn’t pissed off at us. He was pissed off at Al Qaeda because he knew they always shot first and we were just shooting back.”
“He said he would prevent Al Qaeda from firing mortars from his area if we would help him,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “Al Qaeda said they would mess him up if he got in their way. He called their bluff and they seriously fucked him up. They launched a massive attack on his area. All hell broke loose. They set houses on fire. They dragged people through the streets behind pickup trucks. A kid from his area went into town and Al Qaeda kidnapped him, tortured him, and delivered his head to the outpost in a box. The dead kid was only sixteen years old. The Iraqis then sent out even nine year old kids to act as neighborhood watchmen. They painted their faces and everything.”
“Sheikh Jassim came to us after that,” Colonel Holmes told me, “and said I need your help.”
“One night,” Lieutenant Markham said, “after several young people were beheaded by Al Qaeda, the mosques in the city went crazy. The imams screamed jihad from the loudspeakers. We went to the roof of the outpost and braced for a major assault. Our interpreter joined us. Hold on, he said. They aren’t screaming jihad against us. They are screaming jihad against the insurgents.”
“A massive anti-Al Qaeda convulsion ripped through the city,” said Captain McGee. “The locals rose up and began killing the terrorists on their own. They reached the tipping point where they just could not take any more. They told us where the weapon caches were. They pointed out IEDs under the road.”
“In mid-March,” Lieutenant Hightower said, “a sniper operating out of a house was shooting Americans and Iraqis. Civilians broke into his house, beat the hell out of him, and turned him over to us.”
“There were IEDs all over this area,” Lieutenant Welch said. “On every single street corner, buried under the road. They were so big they could take out tanks. When we came through we cleared the whole area on foot. The civilians told us where the IEDs were. I was with one group where a guy opened his gate just a crack and pointed out where one was. It was right in front of his house. Later we went back and had tea. He was so happy to see us.”
“One day,” Lieutenant Hightower said, “some Al Qaeda guys on a bike showed up and asked where they could plant an IED against Americans. They asked a random civilian because they just assumed the city was still friendly to them. They had no idea what was happening. The random civilian held him at gunpoint and called us to come get him.”
“People here tacitly supported Al Qaeda,” Captain McGee said, “because Al Qaeda was attacking us. But they took control of the city. They forced girls to stay home from school. They dragged people outside the city and shot them in the head. They broke people’s fingers if they were seen smoking a cigarette. They forced men to grow beards. Once they started acting like that they could only establish a safe haven by using terrorism against the local civilians.”
“Al Qaeda struck out three times,” said Major Peters. “Strike One: They killed a Sheikh and held his body for four days. Strike Two: They executed young people in public. Strike Three: They attacked the compound of another sheikh. The people here said enough. They aligned with us because they realized Al Qaeda was the real enemy. They didn’t like Al Qaeda’s version of Islam at all.”
Credit for purging Ramadi of Al Qaeda must go to Iraqis themselves at least as much as to the American military. The Americans wouldn’t have been able to do it without the cooperation of the people who live there, and the Iraqis wouldn’t have been able to do it, at least not so easily, without help from the American military.
This drawing by an Iraqi child depicts the American-Iraqi alliance against Al Qaeda. Notice the sword is Iraqi and the muscle is American.
Not only did Iraqi soldiers, police, and civilians join the fight, but also the lesser known local security force fielded by the Anbar tribal authorities.
“The previous battalion saw men on corners wearing cammies,” said Captain McGee. “They were legacy forces still around from the old days, the Provincial Security Forces (PSF). They had been operating as a critical reserve and a mobile strike force. They helped clear the area of AQI on their own. They are as well disciplined, if not more so, than the Iraqi Army. They’ve been working with us, too.”
I said it sounded to me like they were just another Iraqi militia, and he understood what I meant. That’s what they look like, and he had heard that criticism before.
“The PSF looks like a militia,” he said, “but it isn’t. It’s legal and more of a ‘national guard’ like the [Kurdish] Peshmerga. They are authorized and paid by the Ministry of the Interior in Baghdad. Even the Iraqi Army here doesn’t have as good equipment as they have.”
Another difference between the Provincial Security Forces and the militias, which he didn’t mention, is that all the militias to one extent or another are sectarian creatures. There are Sunni militias and Shia militias, and they often fight each other. The PSF is Sunni, but that’s because Anbar Province is Sunni. The PSF isn’t Sunni per se. Its Sunni character is incidental. There are hardly any Shias in Anbar Province who could join the PSF, and the PSF doesn’t fight Shias anywhere in Iraq. They fight Al Qaeda, which also is Sunni. And they cooperate with the Iraqi Army, which even in Anbar is mostly Shia. There is nothing remotely sectarian about them.
“Al Qaeda had dug in the northeastern and southern parts of the city,” Captain McGee told me. “The coalition walled off areas and fought block to block, house to house. Then the Provincial Security Forces went in and recleared it. There was an immediate decrease in attacks.”
Inside a burned house
He was referring Operation Murphy’s Burrow, which brought about a dramatic change in offensive tactics.
“For a long time,” Colonel Holmes said, “they were driving away from the base in Humvees down a street that was infested with Al Qaeda forces. The gunners spun their turrets in circles and just shot at everything, thinking they could provide cover for themselves so they could drive without being shot at.”
“Didn’t that violate the rules of engagement?” I said.
He froze for a second and answered that question very carefully.
“That was the wrong way to do it,” he said. “And they knew it. So they slowly cleared one block at a time, house by house, and kept the supply lines open to the base in the area that was already cleared. Everything behind them got cleared and stayed cleared, so their safe area got gradually larger. We don’t want to hurt civilians. Our job here is to protect Iraqi civilians.”
He’s right. It is the job of the United States military to protect the people of Iraq even before protecting themselves. It is always the job of (American) soldiers to protect civilians before protecting themselves. In doing so they protect themselves better than if they did not. It may be counter-intuitive, but it’s straight-forward, by-the-book counterinsurgency.
Here is the relevant passage from the book. (Thanks to Michael Yon for publishing this for us.)
Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be
1-149. Ultimate success in COIN [Counter-insurgency] is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained. . . . These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.
From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”
“As soon as we were on Easy Street running through the Malaab area every day, 24/7, it got quiet,” said Private First Class Baringhouse from Indiana. “We sealed off the entire area with barricades and blocked all vehicle traffic. Then they couldn’t get weapons and IEDs in. It calmed the place down fast.”
Vehicle traffic is still banned in most of Ramadi. The streets are dead quiet. No one drives but the American military, the Iraqi Army and Police, and a few select taxis.
How well is that going over, I asked Lieutenant Welch.
“Civilians complain about lots of things,” he said. “But they never complain about this. They are so terrified of car bombs they don’t want any car traffic in this city at all. If we could shut down all vehicle traffic everywhere in Iraq, the war would be practically over.”
Car traffic is banned, but mopeds are okay
A motorcycle taxi
There were more than just IEDs and car bombs. There also were house bombs.
“The house across the street was rigged to blow,” he said. “Four Syrians were living in it. Now it’s a pile of rubble. This building,” meaning the Joint Security Station, “was rigged to blow, too, but they hadn’t quite finished the rigging. They hadn’t put the detonator equipment in yet.”
Some of the blown up buildings in Ramadi can be partially blamed on American screw ups.
“Did you see that flattened parking lot looking area out front?” Lieutenant Welch said.
“It was a bunch of shops in the last area we cleared,” he said. “We busted the locks and opened the doors. Everyone had to stay in their houses then. We found tons of weapons and IEDs. Just as we were finishing up some of the military dogs refused to sit on the flour bags. We opened up the bags and it felt like soap. We tested it. We didn’t think it was an explosive, but an accelerant. We took everything, put it into piles, and blew it up without warning anybody. It was a much bigger explosion than we expected. Urea-nitrate was in the bags. It’s an explosive made from fertilizer. That blast was so big that people at Camp Ramadi, all the way on the other side of the city and outside the city, thought it was a nearby car bomb. People at Camp Corregidor thought they were being mortared. Windows blew out for blocks and blocks in every direction. It destroyed the whole block. Civil affairs officers paid compensation to locals for injuries and property damage. Thank God no one was killed. The media reported it as a car bomb at the soccer stadium. Reporters in the Green Zone have no idea what goes on out here.”
Here is a graph that I asked Military Intelligence to reproduce for me that shows the dramatic decrease in violence in the Topeka Area of Operations in Northern Ramadi from January 1, 2007, to July 28, 2007.
Source: U.S. Army Military Intelligence
The graph is for internal use by the Army. It is not intended for public consumption or as propaganda. If it were, what it reveals would be even more dramatic. Most of the tiny number of “attacks” that appear after the middle of May weren’t really even attacks.
“Most of those litle blips represent old IEDs we found that were ineffective,” Captain McGee said. “One was a car bomb by perps who came into Ramadi from outside the city. There was only one other attack against us in our area of operations in July, and it was ineffective. As soon as we came in here to stay the civilians felt free enough to inform on them. Al Qaeda can’t come back now because the locals will report them instantly. Ramadi is a conservative Muslim city, but it’s a completely hostile environment for Islamists.”
The area just north of Ramadi was cleared even before the city itself was.
“On April 7 the entire area of operations [just north of the city] was cleared except for sporadic attacks from twelve people,” Major Lee Peters said. “There was no head to cut off. It was like a hydra. We didn’t win by killing their leaders. We won by eroding their support base. These people hate Al Qaeda much more than they ever hated us.”
The tribes of Anbar are turning their Sahawa al Anbar movement into a formal political party that will run in elections. They also hope to spread it to the rest of Iraq under the name Sahawa al Iraq. It is already taking root in the provinces of Diyala and Salah a Din.
Some have misunderstood this movement and dismissed it as “the insurgency.” Captain McGee provided me with the eleven points of their political platform, for the record.
1. Election of new Provincial Congress.
2. Formation of Anbar Province Sheikhs Congress, with the condition that none was or will be a terrorist supporter or collaborator.
3. Begin an open dialogue with Baath Party members, except those involved in criminal/terrorist acts in order to quell all insurgent activities with all popular groups.
4. Review the formation of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Iraqi Army, with tribal sheikhs vouching for those recruited
5. Provide security for highway travelers in Anbar Province.
6. Stand against terrorism wherever and whenever it occurs, condemn attacks against coalition forces, and maintain presence of coalition forces as long as needed or until stability and security are established in Anbar Province.
7. No one shall bear arms except government-authorized Iraqi Security Forces and the Iraqi Army.
8. Condemn all actions taken by individuals, families, and tribes that give safe haven to terrorists and foreign fighters, and commend immediate legal and/or military remedies to rectify such acts.
9. Recommend measures to rebuild the economy, to entice industrial prosperity, and bolster the agricultural economy. Also find funds and resources to reopen existing manufacturing facilities. The main objective is to fight for welfare and deny the insurgents any grounds for recruitment.
10. Strengthen sheikhdom authorities, help tribal leaders adjust to democratic changes in social behavior, and maintain sheikhs financially and ideologically so they can continue this drive.
11. Respect the law and Constitution of the land, and support justice and its magistrates so no power will be above the law.
Ramadi isn’t completely safe yet. Al Qaeda wants to take back their “Capital of the Islamic State of Iraq,” and they have tried unsuccessfully to attack it from outside on a couple of occasions since they lost it. (They also tried to move their “Capital of the Islamic State of Iraq” to Baqubah in Diyala Province, but they lost that too in Operation Arrowhead Ripper this summer.) Also, Colonel Charlton said, “there may still be one small cell remnant here.” But the war in Ramadi is effectively over. “It’s boring here now,” Private First Class Baringhouse said. “It’s like we’re babysitting the Iraqis. But it’s weird and amazing to be bored here.”
This now “boring” city, which is just barely beginning to recover from utter catastrophe, is a different cultural and political environment than it once was.
“The mosques in Ramadi all have pro-coalition messages now,” Captain McGee said.
“How do you know this?” I said. “Do you actually attend Friday services?”
“We have relationships with the imams,” he said. “We have very good relations with all of them.”
“The Abdullah Mosque next to our outpost was hit by insurgent fire,” Captain Messer said. “The Marines are giving them money to fix it.”
Another mosque, just north of the city in the area known as Jazeera, wasn’t hit by Al Qaeda. It was used as a terrorist base by Al Qaeda.
“It’s blackened,” Captain Dennison told me, “and abandoned. Insurgents used it, so the locals consider it desecrated. No one is willing to set foot in it now.”
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