Marines Try Lighter Touch in Ramadi

Times Staff Writer

This is the anti-Fallouja strategy.

Here, in the capital of Al Anbar province, the U.S. military is attempting to clear and pacify an insurgent stronghold without leveling the city in the process.

In November 2004, U.S. forces surrounded Fallouja, set up checkpoints at every road and worked to empty the area of its civilian population. They then moved in and cleared every house and block. The effort destroyed large swaths of the city and forced a massive reconstruction effort.

This time, U.S. forces hope to avoid such drastic measures.

Rather than gauge success by blocks cleared, military officials here take heart from softer measurements -- neighborhoods that have become safe enough for garbage collection to have resumed, stores that have reopened.

"When we did Fallouja, everything shut down," said Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq. "In Ramadi, it is the exact opposite. Shops are opening up and commerce is increasing."

With both Al Qaeda and Sunni nationalist groups intent on asserting influence over Ramadi, the military cannot afford to draw down its forces in the city.

"The trap lines, the foreign fighter flow from Syria to Baghdad, goes right through Ramadi," Caldwell said.

Yet, the seemingly fragile Iraqi government would be unlikely to allow a Fallouja-style assault, particularly in Ramadi, which has 400,000 residents.

Military officials believe Fallouja showed that the United States would not tolerate an insurgent safe haven in Iraq. In Ramadi, they hope to show that a city known as a primary battleground can be retaken with a softer approach.

Ramadi has long been contentious. The conflict grew far worse after insurgents fleeing Fallouja relocated here in late 2004.

Since then the violence has flared and ebbed. U.S. military commanders claimed to have made progress in 2005, but saw their gains blown away by a bombing in January that killed about 60 Iraqi police recruits.

In June, when the 1st Armored Division began moving in, large sections of the city were difficult to enter, the roads mined with improvised explosive devices and snipers taking pot shots from nearby buildings, said Lt. Col. Pete Lee, the executive officer of the division's 1st Brigade.

"There were parts of central Ramadi coalition forces just did not go," he said.

Residents responded to the buildup of American troops by packing up. Thousands fled, worried that a massive assault was coming, residents say.

The Marines begged residents to stay.

"We sent out patrols and said, 'Do not leave your homes, we will protect you,' " said Capt. Max Barela, the Lima Company commander in west-central Ramadi. "They were expecting a Fallouja-style clearing. It did not play out that way. We want people in their houses and living their lives."

Rather than a direct assault, the goal in Ramadi, officials say, is to shrink the insurgent-dominated areas by creating a ring of combat outposts around the center of the city. The approach uses tactics honed last year by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in the much-smaller city of Tall Afar, near the Syrian border.

Making the population feel more secure is key in fighting an insurgency. In west-central Ramadi, Barela's efforts are focused on gauging how safe the residents feel and trying to understand what he can do to make them feel safer.

In parts of the city, those efforts have a long way to go. Although the military appears to have convinced many residents that a massive assault is not in the making, a large number blame the United States for the chaos and violence here.

"The situation became nearly impossible because our lives are threatened each moment," said Minawir Ali Duleimi, a 56-year-old retired university professor from the city's Sufiya neighborhood. "Ramadi is a military front."

U.S. forces remain targets for insurgent groups, and some merchants say that as long as insurgents are attacking the Americans, civilians will be caught in the middle.

Mohammed Albuassaf was forced to close his shop along Ramadi's main highway when attacks on the American outposts there increased.

"I opened another shop in the city, but it also became dangerous to be there; as it became a joint Iraqi-U.S. military site, it became a target for the armed men's missiles," Albuassaf said. "The situation has become unbearable."

Parts of Ramadi do have pitched battle lines. Regular fighting takes place between insurgents and American forces in the heart of downtown. The area around the government center is filled with bombed-out buildings.

"It is a wasteland," a Marine intelligence officer said. "It's almost like Stalingrad."

Much of the rest of the city, however, resembles Lima Company's area of operations, where there are grand homes, by Iraqi standards, interspersed with the occasional blasted-out shell of a house. In Lima's area, to the east of the government center, the Marines are trying to avoid gun battles, focusing instead on building intelligence and conducting targeted raids.

The idea here is to compel the insurgents not to fight and make sure the military does little to create new insurgents. When they are fired at, these Marines do not always shoot back.

"If you want to kick down doors, going in all hard and treating them like insurgents, that is what you are going to get," Cpl. Daniel Tarantino of Gainesville, Ga., said Friday.

"I got shot at last night. We couldn't see where it was coming from, so we did not return fire. We can't spray 'n' pray. If I do, I will make more terrorists than I kill."

In west-central Ramadi, the primary counterinsurgency tool is the census. Military units move from house to house, not to take the buildings down or clear them of insurgents, but to talk to the residents.

Barela has just added a neighborhood to his area, and on a recent patrol he stopped to ask a resident about conditions. The man answered that there was a great deal of fighting.

"We don't like fighting in your neighborhood," Barela told him, adding that the insurgents "do not have concern if they kill us or they kill you."

In addition to collecting information, Barela tries to dispel rumors. At each house, people asked about the city's main hospital. U.S. forces recently raided the hospital and the city's soccer stadium, saying both were being used to shelter insurgents and store guns and bomb-making material.

Residents, however, told Barela that they had heard that the Americans attacked the hospital, closed it and were turning people away.

Barela explained the American position -- that the hospital had been captured by insurgents who had attacked and killed local police officers seeking treatment and had stored weapons in the complex.

"We did it not to prevent people from going to the hospital, we did it so people could go to the hospital," Barela said.

Barela is trying to create an ever-expanding safe zone within Ramadi, something that residents elsewhere in the city can look to as a model of what happens when people stop fighting the Americans, reopen their businesses and try to live as normal a life as possible in the middle of a war.

On a recent nighttime patrol, Barela paused to talk to a group of men who had gathered on the street to watch a televised soccer game. It was the kind of scene the American officer likes to see -- the more people there are on the streets, the more businesses are open, the less easily insurgents can plant bombs without being seen.

"Four months ago, would you have been hanging out on the street?" Barela asked the men.

No, they responded. "We feel a change."

A special correspondent in Ramadi contributed to this report.

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