Another Day in Ramadi
_(Note: This is the dispatch I planned to file from my last embed in Ramadi back in May. For a variety of reasons it never made it into TIME, but I thought you guys might like to see it. This was a typical day on a week-long embed at the end of May.)_
RAMADI — Signs warning “Complacency kills” dot the bases of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Ramadi.
The Marines stationed in this provincial capital in the treacherous Sunni triangle are bored. Bored of patrols, tired of manning outposts and frustrated by an enemy they can’t meet face-to-face. The signs attest to the tedium of their days.
Unlike the few soldiers and Marines taking the fight to insurgents in towns such as al-Qa’im on the Syrian border, most of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including the guys of the 1-5, are not likely to “get some,” as the young warriors like to say. There are few firefights in Ramadi, a city of about 375,000 people, but lots of roadside bombs. Marines are hunkered down in their bases. When they get out, they patrol the streets, search cars and houses and act more like police than a military force.
“We’re not on the offensive anymore,” said Lt. Brian Huysman, commander of Alpha Company, from his post at the Anbar Province Government Center, which his men guard. “We’re not here to stop the insurgency, but to help the Iraqi government grow.”
His men guard the building so the Anbar government, such as it is, can function. The day after the provincial council elected a new governor, he was promptly kidnapped. Now the deputy governor has taken over the duties of governor. Marines also help set up the new police force, which is non-existent at the moment. The screening process for the new applicants is set to start May 22. “It’s a day-in, day-out kind of thing,” Huysman said thoughtfully as he watched Iraqis wave metal detecting wands over Anbar Governorate employees coming into the triple-walled compound. “There’s no corner to turn. It’s just a slow, slow process.”
By early afternoon, the sun has hit peak intensity, and the men of 1st platoon, Charlie Company are sweating heavily in their body armor. They’re on a patrol to investigate anti-American graffiti on three “known bad guy” mosques near the canal. Three Shi’ites from Najaf, members of the 18th Brigade of the new Iraqi Armyâ€”the Desert Lionsâ€” are with them because mosques are sensitive sites. Marines aren’t to enter unless the Iraqi troops determine there’s reason to search. There is almost no traffic or people on the streets, making the hairs on the back of Marines’ necks bristle.
They search a palatial house and find a Kalashnikov magazine with a single armor-piercing round in it, in the lead position. The man who says he lives there isn’t arrested, nor is his ammo confiscated, but he’s put on a watch list. In another house, next to one of the suspect mosques, Capt. John Maloney, commander of Charlie Company, talks to the owner, an old man in a white dishdasha. He offers the Marines water, but the captain defers to the Iraqi troops with him, and asks him to support them and give him information about insurgents.
The old man replies that if they are Shi’ite, they have no business in Ramadi. He fears the insurgents and their homemade bombs, but he also fears the Shi’ite government in Baghdad and its new army. His fear reveals the fault lines of the new Iraq and the challenge the Marines face in their mission here.
It’s frustrating. No one knows how long it will really take to build a credible government that all Iraqis believe in. The lack of enemy contact — and missions that seem designed to avoid contact with insurgents — frustrates the leathernecks. Marines are trained to fight, acknowledges battalion commander Lt. Col. Eric Smith, and any Marine will say he’d rather be in a gunfight than patrolling a city. However, “There will be no knockout punch here,” Smith said. “It is a daily grind.”
But while the duties are tedious, they’re still dangerous.
“Try watching your buddy get blown up by an IED set by chickenshits who won’t come out and fight,” growled a lance corporal in 1st platoon of 1-5’s Charlie Company.
Five Marines have died since the 1-5 arrived in early March.
And the duties are vital. Iraqi security forces are not ready to take over, fears of civil war loom and insurgents can still move relatively freely. But these boring day-to-day tasks of the Marines in Ramadi are the new American strategy in Iraq: Avoid casualties, hold down the violence and hope the Iraqi security forces can take the fight to the insurgency.
Like much of Anbar province, Ramadi is a dirty, dun-colored place, made up of squat two- and three-story buildings. It tumbles out in a triangle from the intersection of the Euphrates River and the Habbaniyah canal, which feeds into Lake Habbaniyah to the south. And like most Iraqi cities, the dividing line is carelessly maintained between the city and the countryside. Ramadi just kind of runs out of steam to the south and shrugs into farmland as it gets closer to the lake.
Roads from Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia converge here, before merging into the major highway leading to Baghdad. Before the war, these roads made Ramadi a smugglers’ haven, one barely under the control of Saddam Hussein. Today, insurgents and foreign fighters make use of the same smugglers’ trails and while it’s not the insurgent stronghold Fallujah was, the deeply conservative culture, a population that’s 90 percent Sunni and a local leadership made up of tribal sheikhs and imams gives the Marines’ enemies plenty of purchase in Anbar’s capital.
The 1-5 in turn occupies three bases on the strategic tip of the city where the river and canal split: Camp Ramadi, Hurricane Point and Snake Pit. They have responsibility for the western half of the city while the Army’s 1st Battalion of the 503rd Infantry Regiment has the eastern half. With no police force to speak of — it fell apart earlier this year in the face of persistent insurgent attacks — the Marines are the main security presence in the city.
That doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. “I cannot contain my excitement of going on this patrol,” Lance Corporal James Bellasario, 19, of White Hall, Mont., said sarcastically before 2nd platoon of Charlie Company began a sweep for weapons caches on the banks of the canal.
He worries that the lack of obvious successes in Iraq will mean the conflict slips the American public’s mind. “If that happens,” he said, taking a long drag on a cigarette he is too young to buy in some states, “what the hell are over here for? It will be just like Vietnam.”
Maj. Benjamin Busch, with a civil affairs unit attached to the 1-5, sympathizes. “It’s always nice to have a specific place that’s a focus of your effort,” he said. Ramadi doesn’t offer that, as there are no strategic targets other than the goodwill of the citizens, which is vital to the Marines’ efforts here. “When it comes to the actual engagements, the Marines are winning. But the insurgents have incredible power to shut the city down.”
That power is fear, and the people of Ramadi feel it. When insurgents plan an attack, the people know it. Sometimes they tip off the Marines, sometimes they don’t. Members of 2nd platoon grumble about this.
Such patrols are designed not only to find weapons caches, said Smith, but also to squeeze the insurgents from operating in areas of town and undermine their ability to terrorize. The theory is that the mere presence of Marines rather than heavy offensive actions will prove to Ramadi citizens the insurgents can’t provoke or drive away the Americans because for the insurgents, just attacking the Marines is a victory. Attacks show the Americans aren’t in control and undermine citizens’ sense of safety.
“In a sense, not having contact is good, because if I’m able to keep the level of violence down until the government can take over, that’s a successful day,” Smith said. “That gets me to the strategic aim of stability.”
Now, as another day ends without incident or encounter with the enemy, Maloney likens the current battle for Iraq as a chess match. “The trick here, like chess, is to set up the environment,” he said.
His men moved into position as he spoke: some on lookout on roofs, others down the road looking for men planting IEDs. Still others were stopping cars in snap vehicle checks in an attempt to surprise insurgents. He was continuing to apply pressure, but nothing to a breaking point. The goal was to get insurgents to show themselves while keeping his pieces in play.
“Every time they’ve come out, they’ve lost a pawn,” he said. “And they’ve lost a few knights, too.”
Ramadi’s dust hung in the air, backlit by the setting sun. The muezzin’s call to prayer drifted over the city. The Marines headed back to Snake Pit, knowing that when they moved out of the area, the insurgents would come back out to plant more IEDs. As Huysman of Alpha Company said earlier: “They’re trying to see where we’re not watching, where they can get close.”
Another day winds down in Ramadi.