Friday, May 04, 2007

ON Point in Anbar Province: The Tide Turns in Ramadi (Part 1 of 2)

05-03-2007, 10:35 AM • by ON Point

Tonight, the lights are back on in Ramadi.

One year ago, in a report that received national attention, the Administration, Pentagon, and Coalition General Staff had unofficially declared Al Anbar Province and Ramadi to be “lost.” Incidents in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Al-Qaim were measured in how many per hour. Stories of fighting in Ramadi’s “Snake Pit,” or the tragic August 2005 report of fifteen Marine reservists of Lima Company, 3/25, killed in Haditha splashed across the news each night. This was the Sunni and Al-Qaeda in Iraq insurgency at its worst.

But Ramadi is a far different town than when I visited in October 2006 and Jan-Feb 2007. And it’s decidedly different than a year ago.

Ramadi Today

In Ramadi today, the local financial institution, Rafidain Bank, is open and operating like any normal bank. A new bus line brings people to work and market on a regularly scheduled basis. Ramadi General Hospital has been re-opened. There is a huge and vibrant market in the same Qatana area I crept through in February, when I reported on listening to IED’s and small-arms fire at zero-dark hundred.

The city’s water system has been restored. The Medical College has reopened. Alpha Co.’s 1/ 6 2,000 student school is still thriving. The Dental College is open. Two of seven Army Corps of Engineers electricity projects have been completed. And the lights are on in the homes at night.

It’s not just Ramadi that’s come alive. The city of Hit just had 13 days without a bullet being fired. And out on the Iraq-Syria border, Al-Qaim has a bank, a school-board, and a mayor.

The Ramadi-oriented group of Sunni Sheiks—the “Sons of Anbar”—have formed a national political party in order to more fully participate in the national government. The new “Iraq Awakening” party is a group of 200 sheiks who will be pushing a slate of candidates in the provincial elections this year, as well as the parliamentary elections in 2009.

The charismatic Sheik Sattar Al Rishawi and his brother Ahmed plan to continue their drive with Coalition Forces to make Anbar Province a safe, stable and economically viable part of Iraq. If they have their way, the abysmal 2% Sunni Anbar participation figure in the 2005 election will be replaced by a far higher participation percentage.

A few weeks ago, Ramadi completed 17 days incident-free. No deaths. No injuries. No bombs. No attacks. Just 17 normal days. There was an Al-Qaeda suicide attack on Day 18, but the result, fortunately, was only innocent wounded and not dead. This is in contrast to the daily and hourly bombings and beheadings in Baghdad.

Despite these many successes, Al Anbar Province as a whole is far from perfect. In the last week three Marines and three soldiers were killed in Anbar. Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq has been weakened, but not defeated.

But the difference between the scattered IED attacks here in Anbar and the brutal daily carnage in Baghdad is striking, as is the response of the Iraqis. While the other cities of Anbar Province are quieting down as hundreds of their sons volunteer for the Iraqi Police each month, the remainder of Iraq continues to deteriorate.

Last week in Baghdad, I talked with MajGen William Caldwell, the official spokesman for Multi-National Forces-Iraq. In our interview, Caldwell praised the Marines for their efforts. “In the last 12 weeks, violence in Baghdad is down 2%,” he said. “In Anbar, it’s down 6%.” He also noted that while American deaths in the same 12 week period in Baghdad rose 17% (and went up a stunning 52% north of Baghdad) American deaths were down 31% in Anbar.

How did it succeed?

There are three major reasons for Ramadi’s success: Sheik Sattar al-Rishawi, the U.S. Army’s “Ready First” Brigade of the 1st Armored Division and the Marines of 1/6.

Although individual sheiks had previously tried to stand up to AQI, they were uniformly butchered, which served to suppress the entire local population. In April 2006, Sheik Sattar, angered by the killings of his father and four brothers, formed “Sons of Anbar,” and began to fight back.

After that, the Sons of Anbar approached Col. Sean MacFarland, the CO of the Ready First, whose brigade was responsible for Ramadi. Col. MacFarland and his staff negotiated a deal where Sheik Sattar agreed to help root out AQI by providing their sons to be Iraqi Police and protect their own villages as well as by providing crucial local intelligence.

As this was taking hold, 1/6 arrived in September 2006 to take over security in the heart of the city. Because of Sheik Sattar’s initiative, and with Col. MacFarland’s support, 1/6 had a solid cadre of Iraqis who were ready to partner with them in security efforts. The battalion that 1/6 had relieved did not have these advantages. Fortuitous timing allowed 1/6’s commander, LtCol William Jurney, and his XO, Maj. Daniel Zappa, the opportunity to orchestrate their successful “Clear-hold-build” campaign.

The Sheik in the City

As Sattar’s sphere of influence outside of the Ramadi city limits began to bring calm and stability, Sheik Jasim Swidawi, the lead sheik from inside Ramadi, saw Sattar’s success and added his influence. Sheik Jasim had also lost family members to AQI, as had many of his tribe. And they had suffered from the daily battles between the Marines and AQI that raged across his city.

At the same time that he reached out to Sattar, Jasim and his tribe were benefitting from the Marines of 1/6 taking back the city block-by-block through establishing outposts like VA, Hawk, Firecracker, 17th Street, and Qatana.

With the Marines of Alpha Company (Capt Kyle Sloan) walking the streets and clearing the blocks around OP VA and 17th Street, and Bravo Company’s (Capt Jason Arthuad) Marines clearing the Government Center, Qatana, and to the east, it enabled the sheiks to go back to their tribes and recruit their young men as Iraqi Police. Soon, the young men of Jasim’s tribe began to fill the IP recruiting centers.

“These Marines did the hard work in clearing the city and providing the security,” LtCol William Jurney said. “When the sheiks stepped up, they knew they wouldn’t be left hanging.”

The IP program is so successful that they have more recruits than recruiting billets. Some 1,400 young men turned up last month. Defending one’s family as an IP is now considered an honorable position.

Short of training, short of uniforms, and short of arms, they continue to volunteer in droves. Just last week, two members of a local neighborhood watch group disrupted an AQI suicide bombing attempt. After all, who knows who belongs on a street and who does not better than a local citizen?

The security provided by LtCol Jurney’s Marines leads to an Iraqi confidence and trust that leads to even more calm and security. “At first, I believed that AQI and his tribe shared the same patriotic, anti-American agenda,” Sheik Jasim told me. But after experiencing AQI’s fundamentalist reign of terror—and having AQI kill all five of his brothers—Sheik Jasim joined forces with Sheik Sattar and the Marines.

“Islam is a religion of forgiveness and shared living,” Jasim said. “Extremism is not good.” The sheik added that he found the Marines and coalition forces to be a positive influence. He even said that, if necessary, “the Marines can stay for a long time.”

ON Point’s Andrew Lubin just returned to the U.S. from his fourth overseas embed in nine months. Part 2, which will feature portions of four exclusive interviews, will be published Monday.

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