Ramadi still a hotbed for insurgents

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RAMADI, Iraq – Whole neighborhoods are lawless, too dangerous for police. Some roads are so bomb-laden that U.S. troops won’t use them. Guerrillas attack U.S. troops nearly every time they venture out – and hit their bases with gunfire, rockets or mortars when they don’t.

Though not powerful enough to overrun U.S. positions, insurgents here in the heart of the Sunni Muslim triangle have fought undermanned U.S. and Iraqi forces to a virtual stalemate.

“It’s out of control,” says Army Sgt. 1st Class Britt Ruble, behind the sandbags of an observation post in the capital of Anbar province. “We don’t have control of this … we just don’t have enough boots on the ground.”

Reining in Ramadi, through arms or persuasion, could be the toughest challenge for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new government. Al-Maliki has promised to use “maximum force” when needed. But three years of U.S. military presence, with nearly constant patrols and sweeps, hasn’t done it.

Today Ramadi, a city of 400,000 along the main highway running to Jordan and Syria, 70 miles west of Baghdad, has battles fought in endless circles. Small teams of insurgents open fire and coalition troops respond with heavy blows, often airstrikes or rocket fire that’s turned city blocks into rubble.

“We’re holding it down to a manageable level until Iraqis forces can take over the fight,” Marine Capt. Carlos Barela said of the daily violence battering the city.

How long before that happens is anybody’s guess.

U.S. and Iraqi commanders say militants fled to Ramadi from Fallujah during a devastating U.S.-led assault there in 2004. Others have joined from elsewhere in Anbar, blending into a civilian population either sympathetic to their cause or too afraid to turn against them.

They’ve destroyed police stations and left the force in shambles. The criminal court system doesn’t function because judges are afraid to work; tribal sheiks have fled or been assassinated.

While al-Maliki has vowed to crush the insurgency, a major military operation to clear Ramadi risks destroying any hope of reaching a political settlement with disaffected Sunnis.

U.S. commanders also say a Fallujah-style operation is not in the cards, at least not yet, and might not have the desired effect. “That would set us back two years,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Neary, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.

However, the status quo with its bloodletting doesn’t sit well with the troops.

“We just go out, lose people and come back,” said Iraqi Col. Ali Hassan, whose men fight alongside the Americans. “The insurgents are moving freely everywhere. We need a big operation. We need control.”

Some Americans also say ground needs to be taken and held. Most U.S. missions typically consist of going out, coming under fire and returning to base – leaving behind a no-man’s-land held by neither side that insurgents in black ski masks always pour back into.

“This just ‘we ride out, hold it for an hour, get hit, ride back in and now we don’t hold it anymore,’ what’s the point?” said Ruble of the Army’s 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment. “I believe in the cause and I believe in doing good, but when were going out, getting hurt and … not accomplishing anything, why are we going out there? If you’re saying killing one insurgent is worth one of my guys getting hurt … you’re crazy. That’s like killing one guy in the Chinese army. What have you done? not a thing.”

The sheer scale of violence in Ramadi is astounding.

One recent coalition tally of “significant acts” – roadside bombs, attacks, exchanges of fire – indicated that out of 43 reported in Iraq on a single day, 27 occurred in Ramadi and its environs, according to a Marine officer who declined to be named because he’s not authorized to speak to the media.

And that, he said, was “a quiet day” – when nothing from Ramadi even made the news.

In Ramadi, machine-gun fire and explosions are heard every day and tracer fire or illumination flares are seen every night. Even after airstrikes have transformed already ruined buildings full of gunmen into huge balls of gray debris, Marines have marveled at surviving insurgents who’ve come out shooting.

Even though such assaults kill dozens at a time, guerrillas keep on coming – and keep dying.

“They’re crazy to be coming in the numbers that they do,” Lance Cpl. Chris Skiff, 25, of Tupper Lake, N.Y.

Inside a palatial Saddam-era guesthouse near the Euphrates River – now a fortified U.S. base where sand-filled barriers and camouflage netting surround even the portable toilets – Marines stare in wonder at photos of U.S. troops deployed here less two years ago.

The pictures show their predecessors riding in open-topped vehicles, often with little armor. They show freshly painted buildings, since destroyed or splattered with gunfire. They show U.S. troops walking through a downtown marketplace, a casual outing unthinkable today.

Far cry from 2006

Some of the pictures show bullet-strafed buildings and cars on fire, but it’s a far cry from Ramadi, 2006. Case in point: Government Center, headquarters of the provincial governor.

Once, civilian traffic was allowed to pass in front of the near-pristine edifice. Today, only military vehicles are allowed near. The wrecked building is enclosed by blast walls, barbed wire and a sometime moat of sewage. From machine-gun nests, walls of sandbags and tents of camouflage on the roof Marines repel several attacks a day.

Marines say that the governor is unfazed and comes to work despite 29 assassination attempts.

“If you wanna get blown up or shot at or anything else, then this is the place,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Jacob Smith, 28, from Martin, S.D., who helps clear roadside bombs that are sometimes replaced just after the minesweepers drive past.

In one Ramadi neighborhood, Master Sgt. Tom Coffey, 38, of Underhill, Vt., gestured to a paved road his forces would not drive on. “They hit us so many times with IEDs (roadside bombs), we ceded it to them,” he said.

Though coalition forces answer with massive firepower, they rarely pursue attackers – for fear of falling into an ambush and because they have few troops to spare. Though U.S. and Iraqi troops conduct frequent raids and hit targets, the insurgents fight back in their own way.

When U.S. and Iraqi troops question civilians, insurgents follow in their footsteps to visit and sometimes kill the suspected informants.

After U.S. troops use residential rooftop walls as observation posts, insurgents have been known to knock them down.

Ramadi is dangerous not only for combatants, but for civilians caught in the crossfire.

“It’s getting worse. Safety is zero,” Col. Hassan said.

After one neighborhood sweep devolved into an hour-long gunbattle, Iraqi Maj. Jabar Marouf al-Tamini returned to base and drew his finger across a satellite map of the area he’d just fled under fire: “It’s fallen under the command of insurgents,” he said, shaking his head. “They control it now.”

U.S. commanders would argue otherwise, but acknowledge perhaps a bigger problem.

“They don’t have to win. All they have to do is not lose,” said Barela, 35, of Albuquerque, N.M., citing an adage about guerrilla war.

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