Fears of an imminent offensive by the U.S. troops massed around the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi intensified Saturday, with residents pouring out of the city to escape what they describe as a mounting humanitarian crisis.
The image pieced together from interviews with tribal leaders and fleeing families in recent weeks is one of a desperate population of 400,000 people trapped in the crossfire between insurgents and U.S. forces. Food and medical supplies are running low, prices for gas have soared because of shortages and municipal services have ground to a stop.
U.S. and Iraqi forces had cordoned off the city by Saturday, residents and Iraqi officials said. Airstrikes on several residential areas picked up, and troops took to the streets with loudspeakers to warn civilians of a fierce impending attack, Ramadi police Capt. Tahseen Dulaimi said.
U.S. military officials refused to confirm or deny reports that a Ramadi offensive was underway.
Thousands of families remain trapped in the city, those who have fled say. Many can't afford to leave or lack transportation, whereas other families have decided to wait for their children to finish final examinations at school before escaping.
"The situation is catastrophic. No services, no electricity, no water," said Sheik Fassal Gaood, the former governor of Al Anbar province, whose capital is Ramadi.
"People in Ramadi are caught between two plagues: the vicious, armed insurgents and the American and Iraqi troops."
Residents have been particularly unnerved by the recent arrival of 1,500 U.S. troops sent to reinforce the forces already stationed at the city. Street battles between troops and insurgents have been raging for months, but the troops' deployment left residents bracing for a mass offensive to take the town back from insurgents.
"It is becoming hell up there," said Mohammed Fahdawi, a 42-year-old contractor who packed up his four children and fled to Baghdad two weeks ago. "It is unbelievable: The Americans seem to have brought all of their troops to Ramadi."
The fearful city is haunted by memories of the battles that raged in nearby Fallouja in 2004. Determined to purge that city of insurgents, U.S. Marine and Army units lined up to the north and pushed south through the heart of Fallouja. They cleared one neighborhood after another in intense, constant street fighting. By the time the sweep was over, the town was largely destroyed.
Military officials have insisted that the deployment of the additional troops did not presage a Fallouja-style offensive.
"Moving this force will allow tribal leaders and government officials to go about the very difficult task of taking back their towns from the criminal elements," said Army Maj. J. Todd Breasseale, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
A sprawling agricultural and smuggling hub on the banks of the Euphrates, Ramadi has long been one of the U.S. military's stickiest problems. The largest city in Sunni-dominated Al Anbar province, Ramadi has degenerated into a haven for insurgents. Even now, when U.S. forces are working to scale back their presence throughout Iraq, daily combat continues to roil the city.
The death last week of Jordanian-born terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi may have dealt a psychological blow to the Iraq insurgency. But it is not expected to dent the destabilizing power of anti-American guerrillas in Al Anbar.
The U.S. military said that, based on the number of fighters killed or captured by American troops, more foreign fighters crossed into Iraq in May than the previous month. At least 64 foreign guerrillas were killed or caught by U.S. troops last month; most of them made their way through Al Anbar province.
"In general, Anbar is controlled by terrorist groups," said Sheik Yaseen Gaood, deputy minister of the Interior overseeing the western provinces. "The Anbar government has no authority. The ministries of Interior and Defense have no influence there."
The U.S. military was bracing for an increase in attacks on civilians and American and Iraqi forces in the wake of Zarqawi's death, said Col. John L. Gronski, the commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard's 2nd Brigade, in charge of security in Ramadi.
"They go where we are not and they carry out very brutal attacks," Gronski said.
The governor of Al Anbar recently asked the U.S. military for help in taming the foreign fighters, Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, said Saturday.
"We are doing very focused efforts," said Caldwell, who refused to elaborate.
After the Fallouja offensive, the Americans tried to quell the insurgency in Ramadi with a combination of political maneuvers and the cooperation of tribal leaders to root out foreign Islamist fighters.
But that plan has spectacularly fallen apart: The men who dared to ally themselves with the Americans and speak out against Zarqawi and his supporters quickly learned that the U.S. military couldn't protect them. Insurgents killed 70 of Ramadi's police recruits in January, and at least half a dozen high-profile tribal leaders have been assassinated since then.
Ramadi has become a town where anti-American guerrillas operate openly and city bureaucrats are afraid to acknowledge their job titles for fear of being killed. Masked members of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the organization led by Zarqawi, perhaps borrowing from the American hearts-and-minds campaign, drop by elementary schools to pass out pens, books and toys, U.S. intelligence officers say.
The government center in downtown Ramadi, a fortified complex where the governor holds meetings with U.S. officials and tribal leaders, comes under gunfire or mortar attacks daily.
While Marine snipers huddle under camouflage nets on the rooftop, men whose faces are swathed in ski masks pop up in the windows across the street to fire AK-47s at the troops.
"As chieftains, we have been helpless," said Sheik Ali Abed Alaa, a tribal leader in Al Anbar. "The most we can do is condemn and denounce, but who is there to listen to us?"
Information is trickling out of the besieged city. Ramadi is cordoned off, its streets impassable for foreign journalists. And the U.S. military has been reluctant to allow journalists to travel with troops in Ramadi.
For many people in Ramadi, the writing is on the wall.
"We know for sure now that Americans and Iraqi commanders have decided to launch a broad offensive anytime now," said Gaood, the former governor. "But they should have consulted with us."
Ramadi wouldn't prove an easy city to contain. The meltdown of bureaucracy means that no one is sure how many people are still in the city.
When the U.S. invaded the smaller city of Fallouja, it gave the townspeople warning to clear out months in advance. Until this weekend, no such call had gone out in Ramadi.
"Still the government does not have a clear picture about the events in Ramadi," said Hassan Zaidan Lahaibi, a Sunni member of the Council of Representatives, the Iraqi parliament. "So there is plenty of confusion."
Hundreds of families have tried to flee to Baghdad, only to be stopped at a checkpoint on the western outskirts of the capital. Turned away from Baghdad but afraid to go home, they've sought refuge in Fallouja.
The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration has tried repeatedly to send medical and food aid into Ramadi, but it has been thwarted by insurgent attacks, an official there said. In recent weeks, the government has managed to get only one shipment of aid into the city.
"If things continue, we will have a humanitarian crisis," Lahaibi said. "People are getting killed or wounded, and the rest are just migrating aimlessly."
Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Caesar Ahmed and Raheem Salman in Baghdad contributed to this report.