For almost a week, American and Iraqi troops had prepared for this moment. Working through rainy days and nights, they had laid out wire, put up blast walls and set up sniper positions against another attack.
Now all they could do was wait.
A week after a suicide bomber killed two U.S. troops and scores of Iraqis outside these factory gates, would local Sunni Arabs come back to sign up for police jobs or would they stay away?
A little after 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Qassan Ashar Ali, 24, and his brother Omar made their way past three checkpoints, two bomb-sniffing dogs and an X-ray truck and became the first recruits to enter the glass factory in Ramadi after last week’s bombing.
Behind them were at least 225 young Sunni men, many carrying sport bags with clean clothes, toiletries and pictures of loved ones for their trip to the police academy in Baghdad.
“We’ve been scared for a long time,” Ali said. “We’ve had enough.”
U.S. commanders hope the turnout of people such as Ali signifies a watershed moment in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Al Anbar, which is among the most brittle of cities in Iraq.
“The Iraqi army is important, but it’s the police that will be responsible for the rule of law,” said Maj. Robert Rice of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, who oversees the Iraqi police program in Al Anbar. “They’re the foundation to be able to fight a counterinsurgency.”
Commanders here say they garnered support for the recruitment drive through weeks of meetings with clerics and sheiks, some of them with ties to local rebels.
Americans hope to drive a wedge between local rebels and radical Islamist elements of the insurgency -- in part by recruiting locals to police the city.
The focus on the Iraqi police is part of a countrywide priority shift for the Americans, who have long worked on building the Iraqi army. Political and military leaders have dubbed 2006 the Year of the Police.
At the same time, the U.S. military has launched a strategy to combat bombings, which increased considerably last year compared with 2004.
Last week, Operation Green Trident was launched 25 miles south of Fallouja, involving hundreds of coalition and Iraqi soldiers. The sweep netted about 11 tons of munitions from 72 sites, mostly shallow holes along the banks of the Euphrates.
The military also is using bomb-sniffing dogs, high-altitude spy drones and citizen tips to curtail bombings.
Coalition forces anticipate more attacks like those at the factory gates as progress is made toward establishing a permanent Iraqi government.
“Increased attacks across Iraq this past week clearly indicate Al Qaeda and other terrorists still have the capability to surge,” coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Don Alston told reporters Thursday in Baghdad. “As democracy advances in the form of elections ... and government formation and military pressure continues, we expect more violence across Iraq.”
The Bush administration has said it wants to have working Iraqi security forces before considering a drawdown of American troops. And that, commanders say, is the incentive they offered local leaders.
“We basically have a common vision: We certainly don’t want coalition forces in their city forever,” said Army Col. John L. Gronski, commander of the 28th Infantry’s Second Brigade Combat Team, based in Ramadi.
“They want their city to return to normal. They understand the more they fight the coalition forces, the longer we’re going to stay.”
Withdrawal moved to the top of the agenda shortly after Brig. Gen. James L. Williams, assistant commander of the 2nd Marine Division, and Al Anbar Gov. Mamoun Sami Alwani persuaded key leaders to enter into a dialogue, said Col. Miles Burdine, commander of the governance support team.
“It gave us an opportunity to say, ‘If you can convince the sons of Al Anbar to join Iraqi police and the Iraqi army ... we will leave,’ ” Burdine said.
The first meeting to discuss withdrawal conditions, which drew 200 Sunnis from Ramadi, sparked the formation of Al Anbar Security Council, which has since met weekly with U.S. commanders.
As Sunnis have shown more willingness to engage and participate in elections, U.S. commanders have shown more readiness to meet with rebels or those connected to the local insurgency, commanders said.
“We have more of an open mind than we may have had in the past,” said Gronski, who assumed control of the area in July. “Right now it seems promising, and we’re ready to trust the local leaders.” But, he added, “we’re still out there engaging the [radicals] with bombs and with bullets.”
Daily attacks on U.S.-led troops have continued. Mortar rounds rain down on the main U.S. base in the city almost daily, and in the last few months the government center in the battle-worn city has come under several coordinated attacks.
But last week’s suicide bombing, which killed as many as 70 people, including two U.S. troops and three Iraqi soldiers, was the first here against a police recruiting station. Such facilities are frequent targets elsewhere in the country.
On Thursday, security around the glass factory was tight. Inside, a roomful of Americans with laptop computers checked the recruits against a list of names.
Ali and his brother Omar, 20, made the cut -- the first Sunni recruits from Ramadi to enroll at the police academy.
A few months ago, Ali saw masked gunmen shoot his cousin -- a former police officer -- four times in the head. Despite the assault, Ali wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“I want to try to secure my city,” he said.
Times staff writer Chris Kraul in Baghdad and special correspondent Asmaa Waguih in Ramadi contributed to this report.