A ragtag solution with real results

Times Staff Writer

Call it Neighborhood Watch, Iraqi-style.

As recently as two months ago, U.S. forces didn’t dare stake out the Al Tash neighborhood of this insurgent stronghold in Al Anbar province. Enter 22-year-old Saif Sahed, a go-getter recruit for the Provincial Security Force, a new auxiliary police unit that offers hope for at least a bit of stability in the mean streets of Ramadi.

Sahed lives in Al Tash, the kind of neighborhood where everyone knows everyone and newcomers are immediately noticed -- and in recent years often have been insurgents.

“If I find strangers or strange cars, I go to tell my officer. Last week we found some who were insurgents and they were detained,” Sahed said matter-of-factly. “The important thing is to make my neighborhood safe.”

Because Sahed is young and illiterate, he ordinarily would not qualify for the Iraqi army or police. But for the last several weeks, he and his ragtag cohorts, wearing castoff army fatigues and numbering about 2,200, have filled crucial intelligence-gathering, patrol and checkpoint functions in the new provincial force.

And some of them, including Sahed, are even going without pay, in hopes of someday getting the chance to join the police force and make $400 a month.


The provincial force is an example of how the United States is adapting its military strategy to changing conditions. It is difficult to imagine U.S. forces earlier in the war arming and training a force made up mainly of unschooled rural Sunni Arab youths and Iraqi army veterans, groups once considered unsuitable for the post-Saddam Hussein security forces.

Today, Sahed and other members of the force are helping staff “joint security stations.” The new inner-city military outposts, made up of U.S. and Iraqi forces, give the coalition a presence in areas such as Al Tash that just weeks ago were conceded to the insurgents.

‘Tipping point’ seen

Together with the 4,500 police officers recruited in Ramadi since last May, the members of the Provincial Security Force, or PSF, have helped effect an improvement in security that has seen attacks on U.S. forces plummet and a surge in discoveries of insurgents’ weapons and munitions caches. U.S. military officers now talk of a “tipping point” in the three-year battle in Ramadi that has left much of this city in ruins.

A lead collected by Sahed’s crew recently was a case in point. After an attack on a coalition Humvee cost a GI his legs, the group fanned out in Al Tash. The tip soon led them to a “stranger” who had a 155-millimeter artillery shell in his house and said, “Don’t worry, I’m using it against the Americans, not you.”

Sahed’s commander, Maj. Sabaa Yusef Ju, arrested him on the spot.

“We could have never developed that kind of actionable intelligence that fast,” said Lt. Jimm Spannagel with the Army 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade. “The PSF speaks the same language, establishes rapport with the locals and inspires trust. It’s allowing us to extend our reach.”

Enlistments have grown, and the number of uniformed Iraqi police officers and provincial troops on Ramadi’s streets has multiplied to 6,700 from only 200 in July. Security has improved correspondingly.

From an average of 30 insurgent attacks per day in December, such assaults had fallen to an average of fewer than four by last month, said the coalition’s commander in Ramadi, U.S. Army Col. John Charlton.

Roadside bombs are still a major problem in Ramadi, but the numbers are declining. On one day in January, 11 bombs were triggered along a four-mile stretch of highway in west Ramadi that the GIs call Gremlin Road. There have been several days recently when none exploded anywhere in town.

U.S. military officers credit the provincial force with much of the improvement.

“About 10% of our intelligence is actionable, while 90% of their intelligence is actionable,” said Lt. Ed Clark, whose Army platoon patrols west Ramadi.

Thanks to the swelling ranks of Iraqi police and provincial troops, the U.S. military is beginning to secure the second and third legs of its “clear, hold and build” counterinsurgency strategy, goals that just a few months ago seemed unreachable, said Capt. Jay McGee, an intelligence specialist.

“Before, we’d do clearing operations with sweeps through town but fail to hold ground once our troops left. It was like playing whack-a-mole. Hit it here, come back and hit it over and over again.... Now we’re holding our ground, and Ramadi may have reached a tipping point.”

The change came about at the urging of Sunni Muslim sheiks in the Ramadi area who in recent months have coalesced to support the U.S.-led coalition. Fed up with the insurgents’ killings and their acts of intimidation in Ramadi, the sheiks came to the coalition in September to tell the U.S.-led force that they were ready to cooperate and would urge their tribes to supply recruits for the Iraqi army and police.

The sheiks also suggested that the coalition legitimize hundreds of irregular bands, consisting mainly of armed family and tribal members, by creating a separate force for those who technically didn’t meet recruitment standards for the army or police.

U.S. officers, who were at the time fighting insurgents to a standoff, at best, accepted the idea of another column of allied troops in Ramadi.

So were born the so-called emergency response units, which last month were rechristened the Provincial Security Force.

Surprise response

But even the most optimistic U.S. colonel was not prepared for the flood of recruits once the sheiks got the word out that joining the army, police and provincial force had their approval. Recently, 1,500 Iraqi youths showed up to enlist in the police, more than recruiters could take.

Charlton says he now puts recruits in the provincial force until they can qualify for army or police slots. Literacy classes are beginning in several units to help members qualify to advance.

“Kids come up and ask if they can join the army or police. We make them irregulars in the PSF until there is a place for them,” he said.

Another change that helped recruiting was a policy introduced in February promising army recruits from Al Anbar that they would be based close to home if they enlisted. Within two days of the switch, 400 youths had signed up.

“These guys are getting to the attacks before they happen,” Army Staff Sgt. Todd Bair said. “They know who the bad guys are, and they are helping us get weapons and snipers off the streets.”

It remains to be seen whether the improved conditions can be sustained. Much will depend on the 25 Ramadi-area sheiks staying on the same page, and the new security forces submitting to training, organizational norms and rules. The tribes must also coordinate with the provincial government, with which relations have been thorny.

Maj. Ju, Sahed’s commander, said the involvement of local youths in Ramadi’s security was a point of honor. Those once scared of Al Qaeda, he said, were now fighting back.

“They see them as terrorists who were using religion to trick the people.

“We are like the rose that seemed to die but, given water, comes back to life.”