In Ramadi, the Battle Is Ever Changing

Times Staff Writer

The orange-red glow of the tracer rounds burns bright in the dusk, forming a perfect cone over the heads of the Marines and Iraqi soldiers patrolling a dusty walled street.

As the rounds ricochet off the walls, the bullets fly like a shower of sparks. One hits the leg of an Iraqi soldier. Just a few feet ahead, an alleyway offers protection from the bullets and a chance to return fire.

In the alley, hidden behind a small shrub, lies an artillery shell with two protruding wires -- an improvised explosive device waiting for the patrol.

Insurgents in Ramadi, the capital of restive Al Anbar province, are using increasingly sophisticated tactics against U.S. and Iraqi forces. As in the rest of Iraq, the improvised explosive device, which the military calls the IED, is the most common and deadliest weapon. But after three years of fighting, insurgents here are combining roadside bombs with small-arms fire or rocket-propelled grenades to lethal effect.


“Darwin works every day for the insurgency,” said a Marine intelligence officer, whose work with classified information prohibits him from speaking publicly. “The guys who are left know their business. The dumb ones are weeded out very quickly.”

Here, fighters are increasingly operating in small units, with two men serving as spotters and others firing weapons or setting off bombs.

Marine officers say some of the insurgent teams coordinate their attacks with other groups of fighters, sometimes signaling to each other with pigeons.

When insurgents or their supporters spot an American patrol moving through the streets or a squad holed up in a house watching over a street, they release pigeons from rooftop coops. A flock of birds rising in the sky is a sign that Americans have been spotted.

In Ramadi, such coordinated attacks occur many times a day.

“Last year, when I got IEDed, I looked around for the triggerman,” said Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Rabert, an infantry weapons officer. “This year, I look for an ambush.”

The Marines here, part of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Regiment, say they faced a far less sophisticated enemy last year when they operated around Fallouja and the Abu Ghraib prison.

“He never came out and fought us with complex attacks,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Neary, the battalion commander. “Last year there was nothing complex. Here he likes to put things together.”

The danger of the complex attacks, along with the rising heat, has forced the Americans to put a stop to most daytime patrols. Instead, they roam the streets after sunset, when their night-vision goggles give them an advantage.

When the Americans venture forth on a daylight patrol, the insurgents attack -- as the U.S.-Iraqi patrol along the walled street discovered.

When the patrol came under fire, the Marines saw the alley but instinctively did not move toward it. Some jumped over the wall next to them. Others kicked in a courtyard gate and ran through it.

Part of the patrol was caught on the other side of the street.

Sgt. Ron Nipper, a squad leader with India Company’s 4th Platoon, quickly organized covering fire with a SAW, a light machine gun, so the rest of the Marines and Iraqi soldiers could dash into the courtyard.

“Spray that SAW, and you move over here!” Nipper yelled.

Boosh-boosh-boosh -- the Marines opened fire. Moments later the rest of the patrol ran into the courtyard.

Behind the protection of the walls, Roger Noel, a Navy corpsman, bandaged the leg of the injured Iraqi soldier and the Marines plotted their return to base.

The far wall of the courtyard led to the alleyway and an exit. The Marines jumped over the wall and into the alley. There, one Marine moved toward the alley entrance to provide security for the rest of the patrol.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Nipper shouted. “IED! IED!”

Less than 20 feet from the Marines was the simple but deadly bomb.

Later, Staff Sgt. Joe Modesto, the patrol leader, said the insurgents did not expect to hit any of the Marines or Iraqi soldiers in the initial volley but wanted to drive them to the alley.

“They were trying to find a way to get us toward the IED so they could detonate it,” Modesto said.

Knowing what might be coming next, Americans have adjusted their own tactics to try to avoid the traps.

“They try to bait us into running into an IED,” Neary said. “But we are wise to those tactics. That is why you see us go through doors and over walls.”

Yet in Ramadi, it is a constantly changing battle. As soon as the Americans think they have figured out how the insurgents are operating, the techniques change.

“We change our tactics, they change their tactics,” said Sgt. Joey Catron of India Company. “We watch them and they watch us. It is a big cat-and-mouse game.”