September 18, 2007

Anbar Awakens Part II: Hell is Over

This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part One, The Battle of Ramadi, here.

Hell is Over.jpg

RAMADI, IRAQ – In early 2007 Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, was one of the most violent war-torn cities on Earth. By late spring it was the safest major city in Iraq outside Kurdistan.

Abu Musab Al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq had seized control with the tacit blessing of many local civilians and leaders because they promised to fight the Americans. But Al Qaeda’s rule of Ramadi was vicious and cruel. They turned out not to be liberators at all, but the Taliban of Mesopotamia.

Al Qaeda met resistance, after a time, from the Iraqis and responded with a horrific murder and intimidation campaign against even children. The Sunni Arabs of Ramadi then rejected Al Qaeda so utterly they forged an alliance with the previously detested United States Army and Marine Corps and purged the terrorists from their lands.

Free Iraq Poster Ramadi.jpg

Combat operations are finished in Ramadi. The American military now acts as a peacekeeping force to protect the city from those who recently lost it and wish to return.

It is not, however, completely secured yet.

“Al Qaeda lost their capital,” Major Lee Peters said, “and the one city that was called the worst in the world. It was their Stalingrad. And they want to come back.”

In July and again in August they did try to retake it and lost pitched battles on the shores of Lake Habbaniya and Donkey Island just on the outskirts. They destroyed a bridge over the Euphrates River leading into the city with a dump truck bomb. Four other bridges in Anbar Province were also destroyed in acts of revenge in the countryside by those who no longer have refuge in cities. And just last week Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha, the leader of the indigenous Anbar Salvation Council that declared Al Qaeda the enemy, was assassinated by a roadside bomb near his house.

That murder can’t undo the changes in the hearts and minds of the locals. If anything, assassinating a well-respected leader who is widely seen as a savior will only further harden Anbaris against the rough men who would rule them.

“All the tribes agreed to fight al Qaeda until the last child in Anbar,” the Sheikh’s brother Ahmed told a Reuters reporter.

Whether Anbar Province is freshly christened pro-American ground or whether the newly founded Iraqi-American alliance is merely temporary and tactical is hard to say. Whatever the case, the region is no longer a breeding ground for violent anti-American and anti-Iraqi forces.

“As of July 30,” Major Peters said in early August, “we’ve have 81 days in the city with zero attacks since March 31.”

“We’ve had only one attack in our area of operations in the past couple of months,” said Captain Jay McGee at the Blue Diamond base. He was referring to the Jazeera area immediately north of the city and including the suburbs. “And we haven’t had a single car bomb in our area since February.”

Violence has declined so sharply in Ramadi that few journalists bother to visit these days. It’s “boring,” most say, and it’s hard to get a story out there – especially for daily news reporters who need fresh scoops every day. Unlike most journalists, I am not a slave to the daily news grind and took the time to embed with the Army and Marines in late summer.

Convoy to Grove Anbar.jpg

When the Army Soldiers at Blue Diamond took me along on their missions I could see why so many reporters write off Ramadi as a place where nothing happens: I was sent along in a convoy of Humvees to the outskirts of the city in a palm grove to attend an adult literacy class for women.

The class was cancelled at the last minute, though, so our trip to the palm grove was actually pointless. But Iraqis descended on us from their countryside houses and kept us busy happily socializing for hours.

Grove and Kids Anbar.jpg

Experiences like this are now typical for the infantrymen of the United States military, but extraordinary for a civilian like me who isn’t accustomed to casually hanging out with Arabs in Iraq’s notorious Sunni Triangle.

Marine Man and Boy Ramadi.jpg

I was greeted by friendly Iraqis in the streets of Baghdad every day, but the atmosphere in Ramadi was different. I am not exaggerating in the least when I describe their attitude toward Americans as euphoric.

Grown Iraqi men hugged American Soldiers and Marines.

Iraqi Man Hugging Soldier Ramadi.JPG

Young men wanted me to take their pictures with their arms around American Soldiers and Marines. The Americans seemed slightly bored with the idea, but the Iraqis were enthusiastic.

Young Man and Soldier Ramadi Jazeera.JPG

Children hugged State Department civilian reconstruction team leader Donna Carter.

Donna Carter and Iraqi Girl 1.jpg

Ramadi has changed so drastically from the terrorist-infested pit that it was as recently as April 2007 that I could hardly believe what I saw was real. The sheer joy on the faces of these Iraqis was unmistakable. They weren’t sullen in the least, and it was pretty obvious that they were not just pretending to be friendly or going through the hospitality motions.

Donna Carter and Iraqi Girl 2.jpg

“It was nothing we did,” said Marine Lieutenant Colonel Drew Crane who was visiting for the day from Fallujah. “The people here just couldn’t take it anymore.”

What he said next surprised me even more than what I was seeing.

“You know what I like most about this place?” he said.

“What’s that?” I said.

“We don’t need to wear body armor or helmets,” he said.

I was poleaxed. Without even realizing it, I had taken off my body armor and helmet. I took my gear off as casually as I do when I take it off after returning to the safety of the base after patrolling. We were not in the safety of the base and the wire. We were safe because we were in Ramadi.

Saying Hi to the Kids Ramadi Jazeera.jpg

Only then did I notice that Lieutenant Colonel Crane was no longer wearing his helmet. Neither were most of the others.

Donna Carter Helps with Homework.jpg
Donna Carter helps an Iraqi boy with his English class homework

I saw no violence in Baghdad, but I would never have taken off my body armor and helmet outside the wire. I certainly wouldn’t have done it casually without noticing it. If I had I would have been sternly upbraided for reckless behavior by every Soldier anywhere near me.

But in Ramadi the Marines are seriously considering dropping the helmet and body armor requirements because the low level of danger makes the gear no longer worth it. Protective gear doesn’t look intimidating, exactly, but it is hard to socialize properly with Iraqis while wearing it. It creates a feeling of distrust and distance.

Man and Small Son Ramadi.jpg

When we got back in the Humvees I was required to don my helmet again in case we hit a bump in the road.

Bumps in the road are now officially seen as more hazardous than insurgents and terrorists in Ramadi. (There is a lot of hard metal inside a Humvee that you can bang your head up against.) I have my doubts about the relative dangers of each in the real world. Ramadi isn’t totally safe yet. But this kind of juxtaposition is absurdly unthinkable in Baghdad.

The Iraqis of Anbar Province turned against Al Qaeda and sided with the Americans in large part because Al Qaeda proved to be far more vicious than advertised. But it’s also because sustained contact with the American military – even in an explosively violent combat zone –convinced these Iraqis that Americans are very different people from what they had been led to believe. They finally figured out that the Americans truly want to help and are not there to oppress them or steal from them. And the Americans slowly learned how Iraqi culture works and how to blend in rather than barge in.

“We hand out care packages from the U.S. to Iraqis now that the area has been cleared of terrorists,” one Marine told me. “When we tell them that some of these packages aren’t from the military or the government, that they were donated by average American citizens in places like Kansas, people choke up and sometimes even cry. They just can’t comprehend it. It is so different from the lies they were told about us and how we’re supposed to be evil.”

The literacy class for women and girls may have been cancelled, but the local would-be students wanted me to take pictures of them at their desks. So the classroom was opened and they sat in their seats for staged photos. We had no language in common. It was just obvious, from their beckoning hand gestures, what they wanted me to do. They seemed to be proud that they were learning to read, and that women and girls were allowed to be schooled again now that Al Qaeda is gone.

Woman in Class Ramadi.jpg

Young Girl in Class Ramadi.jpg

Girls in Class Ramadi.JPG

Donna Carter and Baby Ramadi.jpg

Earlier this year these very same people would have treated me as an enemy to my face had I shown up. Al Qaeda is gravely mistaken if they believe they can flip Ramadi back into their column by assassinating Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha.

Shortly before Sheikh Sattar was killed near his home he explained the Anbari point of view to Fouad Ajami, the Johns Hopkins University professor from South Lebanon.

“Our American friends had not understood us when they came,” he said. “They were proud, stubborn people and so were we. They worked with the opportunists, now they have turned to the tribes, and this is as it should be. The tribes hate religious parties and religious fakers.”

*

“Old school methods defeat insurgencies,” Captain McGee said, “not brute force or technology. The key is to kill existing terrorists and prevent additional recruitment. Al Qaeda must have a safe haven or they will barely be able to operate.”

That doesn’t mean they can’t operate at all, but it does mean they can’t control territory, work out in the open, or oppress others from above. They are hunted now and must spend an enormous amount of energy avoiding detection instead of stirring up trouble. The former would-be “liberators” have become hated fiends who lurk in the shadows and lash out in rage at the society that has rejected them. Victory for them, in this place, is all but impossible now.

“Having the Arabic press note that AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is rejected by Sunni Arab Iraqis is better than any message we could ever put out,” Major Lee Peters said.

It is not reasonable to expect violence in Ramadi to wind down to absolute zero before the rest of Iraq is secured. But the city has been successfully transformed from a war zone to a place that, like Beirut and Jerusalem, suffers acts of terrorism of the kind the world is long used to. The hokey phrase “war on terrorism” just fails to describe what happened before, when a city of 450,000 people was chewed to pieces by an army of hundreds of sadists and killers, where every single day was September 11.

Surveying the destruction was distressing, especially after meeting some of the children who survived the experience.

Destruction and Rebar Ramadi.jpg

Cute Girl White Dress Ramadi.jpg

Kids Barbed Wire Ramadi.jpg

Two Young Boys Ramadi.jpg

Terrorism is emphatically not what it used to be. We all knew that, of course, when hijacked plans were used to destroy skyscrapers in New York. Previously, terrorism was what the Irish Republican Army did. Many innocents were murdered in Britain, but Northern Irish separatists never made a crater out of a city of nearly half a million people. Nor did they even want to. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have murdered hundreds of Israeli civilians in restaurants and coffee shops and probably would do to Tel Aviv what Al Qaeda did to Ramadi if they could. But they can’t and likely never will be able to do so.

Al Qaeda may be a relatively small part of the “insurgency” in Iraq, but their destructive power nearly reached that of a state for a while, at least in this area. I don’t know of any place in Iraq that has suffered this much violence since Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal Campaign against Kurds. Baghdad is nowhere near as torn up as Ramadi.

The city is still in terrible shape, but its regeneration is unmistakable.

Dress Ramadi.jpg

“How safe is it here, really?” I asked Major Peters. “What if I rented a house here for a month and lived alone without any protection? What would happen to me?”

“You could rent a house here for a while,” he said, “and be okay without bodyguards, but I wouldn’t stay too long. Something might happen to you eventually. Remember AQI wants to retake the city. They might eventually find you.”

Chair and Rubble Ramadi.JPG

I asked Captain McGee the same question. I have no plans to do this. The question is purely theoretical.

“You would probably be okay downtown,” he said, “but you would definitely be fine just north of town. If you tried that in February you would not have lasted four hours.”

“You trust the locals that much?” I said.

“I do,” he said.

“The only people I trust with my life in this country are the Kurds,” I said.

“I trust these people almost as much,” he said. “Are they petty? Yes. Are they tribal? Yes. Are they Arabs?” He rolled his eyes. “Yes. Do they believe in conspiracy theories? Yes. But they have their act together now.”

I patrolled Market Street downtown with Sergeant Hicks and Lieutenant Markham. Kids loudly cheered as we drove past. Some children ran all the way up to the Humvees and knocked on the doors, beckoning us to get out.

Boy Peering Inside Humvee Ramadi.JPG

When we did dismount our Humvees every civilian on the street except vendors dropped what they were doing and came forward to greet us.

Market Street Ramadi.jpg

Cell Phone Store Ramadi.jpg

I photographed a freshly painted cell phone store that looked new.

“That’s when you know life is coming back to normal,” Sergeant Hicks said, “when they open a cell phone shop.”

Soldier and Street Vendors Ramadi.JPG

“It’s amazing for us to see people out on that street buying and selling things,” Captain Phil Messer said to me later. “That never happened for the first months we were out here. Literally zero businesses were open. People were scared shitless of Al Qaeda. If you pissed them off they would show up at your house in the middle of the night, rape your women in front of you, kill your sons, and say you will not help the Americans. Huge numbers of these people just fled to Syria.”

I saw young Iraqi men picking up trash that had been dumped all over the city when there was no garbage collection during the fighting.

“This cleanup operation is a big deal for counterinsurgency,” Sergeant Hicks said. “We’re helping them organize it, and it shows Al Qaeda that the people are with us now. They would have been killed if they tried this before.”

Garbage Ramadi.jpg

Iraqi children may know only a handful of words in English, but mister and picture are two of them. Every kid in Iraq demands to be photographed. I heard “Mister, Mister, Picture Picture!” literally hundreds of times whenever I stepped into the streets of Ramadi. Some kids would say “Mister, Mister, Picture, Picture,” dozens of times all by themselves.

Kid with Orange Shirt Ramadi.JPG

I saw so many pictures of crazed Iraqis wearing ski masks and carrying rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs before I went to Baghdad and Ramadi that I slowly started to think, against my better judgment, that such people are typical. I never once saw anyone like that. They are around, obviously, but they are not in any way typical.

These are the typical faces I saw in Iraq.

Girl with Bowl Cut Ramadi.jpg

Girl Biting Nails Ramadi.jpg

They are the ones I now think of when trying to figure out what the United States should do in Iraq. They are the ones who will have to suffer the consequences the longest.

Some of the Soldiers started handing out candy to children. Mass pandemonium broke out.

Candy Market Street Ramadi.jpg
American Soldiers hand out candy to Iraqi children

Iraqi kids will shove and even punch each other to get a piece of candy. The Soldiers should probably hand this stuff out a little more orderly.

The kids are cute, but their aggressiveness is a little distressing.

“One thing these people really understand,” a Soldier sadly told me by way of explanation, “is pain.”

*

Back at the Joint Security Station – a large rented house where Iraqi and American Soldiers live side by side and keep tabs on a small piece of the city – the Iraqis taught Arabic to the Americans. The Americans taught English to the Iraqis. The Iraqis gently helped the Americans with their Arabic accents and used basic books as learning tools where words were spelled out in both Arabic and Latin alphabets. The Soldiers and Marines were learning basic Arabic, what you would expect to learn in an Arabic 101 class at most. The Iraqis were a little bit farther along in their English, but not much.

The Iraqis made tea for Americans. The Americans made coffee for Iraqis.

I could see that these men (and they were all men) felt genuine affection for each other. The Soldiers and Marines clearly thought of me, a fellow American, as more of an outsider than the Iraqi Army Soldiers who also were there. They ate, slept, worked, fought, bled, and died next to each other in the heat of battle against those who had earlier taken over the city. My status as a fellow American seemed to count for less with the Soldiers and Marines than the trauma they shared with their Iraqi counterparts.

I did not hold it against them.

“We Americans and Iraqis have been through hell together here,” said Captain McGee.

When I visited the police station in Mushadah just north of Baghdad, where American Military Police are training the Iraqi Police, most Americans saw the Iraqis as lazy, corrupt, and contemptible. In Mushadah the Americans seemed to relish the opportunity to complain about the Iraqis to me, a fellow American, whom they clearly felt they had much more in common with. They were sure I would sympathize with their complaints, and they were right. It does not bode well for the future in Baghdad. Anbar Province really is different, and it’s not just because Al Qaeda has been driven out.

The Iraqi Army Soldiers in Ramadi were also much more friendly with me than were their counterparts in Baghdad, who politely said hello to me but never, not once, said anything else.

I started to prepare an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) for myself – Chicken Tetrazzini, which somehow tastes the least processed of all the MRE options – and flipped through an old issue of Air and Space magazine that Lieutenant Hightower had fished out of his desk for me.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” an Iraqi Soldier said to me when he saw what I was doing. “You eat Iraqi food,” he said. “MRE food no good.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I don’t mind.”

“No!” he said. “We give you Iraqi food. Come with me.”

An Iraqi cook had prepared a delicious meal of barbecued chicken and rice with a spicy red sauce I had never eaten before. The Iraqi was right. It was much better than MRE food.

“We have one Iraqi lieutenant here who speaks pretty good English,” Marine Lieutenant Jonathan Welch told me. “You should talk to him. He has a sarcastic sense of humor and a really interesting point of view.”

“That would be terrific,” I said. “Can you introduce me to him?”

He went to find the lieutenant, but came back with bad news.

“He won’t talk to you,” he said. “Apparently some reporters recently spent a few days with him and his men. They wrote an agenda-driven story with a few quotes yanked out of context. He said the story was a total lie and that he refuses to have anything to do with the media.”

I heard complaints of that sort about the media every day from American Soldiers and Marines, but this was the first time I had heard it, albeit indirectly, from an Arab Iraqi.

Lieutenant Welch didn’t mind talking to me, though. None of the Americans refused to talk to me even if they were suspicious of journalists.

What did he think of the Iraqi Army and Police in Anbar Province? I hadn’t heard any complaints yet, not from one single person.

“The Iraqi Army here is very good,” he said. “One of the best battalions in Iraq.”

“Have they been infiltrated?” I said. “I went to a police station in the Baghdad area and was told that perhaps half of them work with Al Qaeda.”

“They’re not infiltrated here,” he said. “Most of the Iraqi Soldiers here are Shias.” Al Qaeda is exclusively Sunni and views Shias as infidels worthy only of slaughter. “They are Muslims, but very secular in their outlook. They are no more religious than Sunday Catholics. The Shias in the army work very well with the Sunnis in the army here. There isn’t any friction at all. It’s sort of like when the U.S. Army integrated black and white Americans. It breaks down bigotry. The Shia Soldiers helped rescue Sunni civilians from Sunni terrorists and reduced sectarian tensions on both sides.”

“Why is the Iraqi Army here in so much better shape than in Baghdad?” I said.

“One reason,” he said, “is because most of these people have been in the army longer. They were among the first to sign up. They have more experience, and the bad ones have been weeded out.”

“Are they competent?” I said.

“Do you mean are they tactically proficient?” he said.

I nodded.

“Fairly,” he said. “There are coordination issues at the battalion level, but otherwise they’re pretty good. The Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police are actually one of the most encouraging things I have seen here. Some of these people were paid for the first time only yesterday.” He said this in August. “They are incredibly dedicated.”

Like everyone else I talked to, he was frankly stunned by the changes he has seen in Ramadi.

“This place has made an amazing turnaround,” he said. “Everyone knew about Ramadi. It was another Fallujah, but it was worse than Fallujah. I did not want to come here. I was supposed to have an easy deployment in Karbala. Most guys coming out here were looking forward to combat. Not me. I had already done it. If you told me a few months ago what it would be like now I wouldn’t believe it. A little while ago we went to a soccer game. Lieutenant Tierney put it together. They have sixteen soccer teams now. We bought them uniforms, balls, water for the field, everything. They had a huge opening ceremony. Hundreds of people were there. It was incredible. Just incredible. It was a real storybook turnaround. This is why we fight. This is why what we do is worth doing. This is what makes the sacrifices, like Lieutenant Hightower having metal enter his body, worthwhile.”

Lieutenant Hightower was standing right next to us when Lieutenant Welch said that. He was hit with an IED a few months ago. Pieces of shrapnel tore up his leg. He nodded at what Lieutenant Welch said, agreeing that getting “blown up,” as Welch put it, was worth it.

“That is the most encouraging thing,” he said, “seeing American Soldiers at soccer games at a stadium that recently was used as a graveyard.”

*

“We’re learning to use local conflict resolution strategies,” said Colonel John Charlton. “Living with Iraqis every day helps us understand local culture. We’ve actually become attached to these people on a personal level. We feel responsible for their safety. We’re concerned about what will happen to our Iraqi friends if we don’t succeed in this country.”

I heard quite a number of Soldiers and Marines express the same sentiment. Whether it’s true or it isn’t, and whether it’s supposed to be this way or not, sometimes I sensed they feel like they’re fighting for Iraqis more than they feel they are fighting for Americans.

Candy to Girls Ramadi 1.JPG

Candy to Girls Ramadi 2.jpg

“We play soccer with the Iraqis,” Captain McGee said. “They always win. We taught them American football, though, and we always beat them at that. They can’t even throw the ball right.”

Soldier Guarding Children Playing Soccer.jpg
Iraqi children play soccer under the protective umbrella of American Soldiers

“All the mosques now have pro-US messages now,” Major Peters said. “They used to be anti-American, in part because AQI barged in and told them to broadcast anti-Americanism or die.”

“We have excellent relationships with every imam and every mosque in the city,” Colonel Charlton said. “Terrific relations. There are no negative comments about the coalition in mosques whatsoever. Previously there was. Partly because they hated us for a while, and also because AQI said to broadcast anti-American messages or they would be killed.”

“We get positive atmospherics from the locals,” Captain McGee said. “They say We feel really safe with you out here. We want to make sure they never think of us as an oppressor.”

Soldiers and Kids Poster Ramadi.jpg

If that ever happens (again), the Americans in Ramadi will be in deep trouble. They should count themselves lucky so far.

“We still haven’t seen a re-emergence of nationalist cells even four months after defeating Al Qaeda,” he continued. “That’s because we’re helping with projects and humanitarian aid.”

Marine and Kids Ramadi.JPG

“Who exactly do you mean when you say nationalist cells?” I said.

“Baathists,” he said, “and a myriad of small Sunni rejectionist groups who wanted to eject coalition forces but did not harm Iraqis. They could have chosen to come back, but so far they haven’t. Partly, I think, it’s because personal contact with Iraqis over time has disproved the conspiracy theories about how we’re supposedly here to steal oil and women.”

Half the world seems to believe Americans invaded Iraq for the oil. I hadn’t heard about Americans supposedly invading Iraq to steal women, but it makes sense now that I’ve heard it. Many Iraqis compare the American invasion of Iraq, fairly or not, to the far nastier Mongol invasion of Iraq in the 13th Century. That was the chief point of reference for many of the nation’s Arabs (but not Kurds) when the Americans first showed up.

Other strange conspiracy theories abound. I never saw an American wearing a red beret, but apparently some Iraqis believe red berets are dyed in human blood. Perhaps the most amusing theory, which I know many Iraqis believe to this day, is that American Soldiers and Marines have what they call “cold pills” so they can’t feel the blistering heat of the summer.

“I demand cold pills!” an Iraqi officer said when he barged into the office of Colonel John Steele at Camp Taji.

“Listen,” the colonel said to the Iraqi and pointed at his own forehead. “You see these beads of sweat on my forehead that are running down toward my nose? That’s because I feel just as hot as you do.”

One American soldier told me about a time he was having tea in a friendly Iraqi civilian’s house.

“It’s hot today,” said the Iraqi, “but at least you have your air conditioner on.”

“What do you mean?” said the Soldier.

“Your air conditioner,” the Iraqi said and pointed at the Soldier’s bulky body armor.

The Soldier laughed out loud.

“That’s body armor,” he said. “Not an air conditioner!”

“Come on,” the Iraqi said. “We all know those are air conditioners.”

The Soldier took off his body armor and handed it to the Iraqi. “Here,” he said. “Put it on and see for yourself.”

The Iraqi donned the armor and suddenly felt even hotter.

“Hmm,” he said. “It is pretty hot. But I’m sure it will get cold after a while.”

*

Ramadi was eviscerated by war. It is still an emergency room case by the standards of the West, but it slowly recovering now that it’s safe to rebuild.

“Electricity and water are major priorities,” Colonel Charlton said. “Right now they have electricity for eight hours a day.” Recently they had zero. “It’s better now because the insurgents aren’t sabotaging the power grid. The electricity and sewer workers are working the hardest. They have a sewer system here, but it was broken by IEDs planted under the roads. Restoring basic services is a priority because it provides stability. The lack of services made people unhappy and exploitable.”

Open Sewer Ramadi.jpg
Sewage still runs in the streets

“AQI destroyed the cell phone tower and TV station,” Major Peters said, “but we put the tower back up.” I was able to make phone calls to the United States from Ramadi without even replacing my SIM card with an Iraqi card, but the system is still unreliable, and only around a third of my calls were ever connected.

“You see all these people working on the side of the road?” Captain Phil Messer said. “You would not have seen that even four months ago. It was absolutely unheard of.”

13 million dollars have been spent by the American military on rubble removal alone.

Removed Rubble Ramadi.JPG
One of the many vast swaths of cleared rubble

“Female Army Soldiers are working on women’s outreach programs,” said Major Peters.

“We’re like the Peace Corps with muscles here,” one Solider told me. That seems about right. And they’ve cleared a relatively safe space for civilian aid workers to move in and help, too.

“Each member of the municipal government has a partner with civilian reconstruction teams who specialize in various areas,” Colonel Charlton said. “At first judges and lawyers were afraid to even meet with us. They had to meet with us in secret. Military lawyers are being sent in to help now, and also civilian experts. They had no place for criminal trials, but we’re helping them build that now. There is also quite a bit of progress toward implementing the Rule of Law. The Iraqi Police were arresting people and no one really knew why or had documentation. People started just getting warehoused. We’re training them on proper police procedures and documentation, and showing them how to build case files. They all attend a detainee handling course to ensure against prisoner abuse.”

I don’t know what the population of Ramadi is now. It was around 450,000 people before the war, and it sharply declined during the fighting when so many fled. But the population is growing again, partly because many Sunnis are moving there from Baghdad, and also because many who left are returning.

“Every couple of days now people come home,” Captain Messer, referring to the small part of the city he’s responsible for. “They swing by the station and tell us they’re moving back and ask if it’s okay if they return to their houses. Of course it’s okay. They don’t have to ask that. But they don’t know. We tell them welcome home, welcome back to the neighborhood. And they always invite us over for dinner.”

Hanging Out Ramadi.JPG
These men asked us to sit down and have tea with them, but we had to keep walking

Ramadi, and Anbar Province in general, still have serious problems.

“We still have to worry about potential destabilizing factors in the future,” Colonel Charlton said. “Reconstruction delays, economic stagnation, the isolation of Anbar by the government. Any of these things could happen. The central government needs to come out here and create some good faith.”

“They are pretty strongly against the government here,” Captain McGee said. “But last I heard that wasn’t any kind of a crime. Half of America opposes our own government, so…so what?”

The biggest problem, of course, is that Al Qaeda isn’t dead yet. Last week’s assassination of Anbar Awakening movement leader Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha is only the most recent grim reminder that Ramadi is still a part of Iraq.

“AQ will try to re-take the city,” Colonel Charlton said. “I am certain of it. They’ve already tried. They came in from Samarra, swung around, and approached from the south through the desert.” They did the same thing again even more recently. “It was an attack planned at the AQ national level and it erupted in a day-long fire fight. The whole province is a major failure and defeat for Al Qaeda. They need to ‘fix’ this, so to speak.”

The city, and the rest of Anbar Province will continue to suffer the tragic consequences of its geography even if it manages to repair its politics and its culture. Will another insurgency erupt? Will the Sunnis of Anbar declare war on the Shias in Baghdad? Well I don’t know, this is Iraq. But whatever happens, and whether it’s good news or bad, never again will Al Qaeda find a warm home here.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at September 18, 2007 1:31 AM
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The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn