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No Shortage of Fighters in Iraq's Wild West

Marines in the key city of Ramadi dig in and wait anxiously for the battle to come to them. The goal isn't victory; it's to stave off chaos.

July 25, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

RAMADI, Iraq — Hunkered down in the turquoise-domed Islamic Law Center, a dozen Marines wait for the enemy to make its inevitable move. Insurgents equipped with Soviet-made sniper rifles keep the building in their cross hairs. Assailants with AK-47s and grenade launchers regularly peer from nearby alleys and roofs. Attacks can come from any direction.

The wait is unnerving, but it's better than being in the streets of this turbulent western city. A Marine convoy was attacked here Wednesday with a roadside bomb and as many as 100 insurgents unleashed a barrage of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades in rolling firefights that lasted for much of the day. Thirteen Marines and one soldier were injured, and the U.S. military reported killing 25 fighters.

"When you walk on the streets, they can hide in every nook and cranny and you can never find them until they start shooting," said Marine Cpl. Glenn Hamby, 26, who heads Squad 3 of Golf Company. "Here, they have to come right to us."

This is what the war has come down to in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland, where providing tenuous security harks back to America's 19th century Indian Wars -- a time when the cavalry set up outposts and forts in decidedly hostile territory. Ramadi is Indian Country -- "the wild, wild West," as the region is called.

Half a dozen or so Marine observation posts dot Ramadi's main drag, linking heavily fortified bases and helping to keep the inhospitable city from turning into a Fallouja-like sanctuary for insurgents.

U.S. troops have walked away from Fallouja, 30 miles to the east. But here in the capital of strategic Al Anbar province, the fight goes on day after day.

The aggressive patrols that marked the Marines' arrival this spring were met with frenzied and bloody insurgent attacks, leading to some of the heaviest U.S. losses of the Iraq conflict. Since the patrols gave way to the more modulated "outposting" strategy, however, American deaths have declined dramatically.

Marines say the scaled-back blueprint has worked in other ways: Unlike Fallouja, Ramadi still has a U.S. military presence designed to keep open the city's main artery, back up Iraqi police who protect the heavily fortified Iraqi government center and prevent the city from falling into complete chaos or insurgent control.

The reduced U.S. visibility here also coincides with the return of sovereignty to Iraq and a nationwide push to keep American troops in the background as much as possible. Still, no one doubts that Iraqi security forces would be outmatched here if not for the U.S. military presence.

"We've had some success -- Highway 10 is open, and we're seeing the Iraqis take more and more charge of their own security," said Capt. Christopher Bronzi, who heads Golf Company from the frequently attacked Marine base known as the Combat Outpost, a former Iraqi army facility along Highway 10, the city's main drag. "People in Ramadi are ready for us to be less a part of their country."

Even beyond the evolving strategy, the story of Ramadi is in sharp contrast to that of Fallouja.

Although it has acquired great symbolic potency as a symbol of armed resistance, Fallouja is basically a backwater with no strategic significance. Ramadi, on the other hand, with 450,000 residents, is the economic and political hub of the Sunni Muslim heartland.

Ramadi also is the gateway to Syria and Jordan, brimming with potential recruits for the jihad against "infidel" invaders. Marines in Ramadi did not have the luxury of walking away.

Since arriving in March, the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment based in Ramadi has lost 31 troops and suffered almost 200 injuries, most during a series of fierce but largely unheralded urban fights in early April.

Before the Marines' arrival, the commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., declared that Al Anbar was "on a glide path toward success" and pronounced the insurgency here in "disarray" -- far from the situation faced here today by the Marines who took over from Swannack's soldiers.

The Marines' initial strategy of high-profile patrols was far more aggressive than the Army's limited-engagement efforts. The violent backlash demonstrated that the insurgents in Ramadi had never been vanquished, Marines say, and probably had been consolidating forces during the Army occupation.

The fierce house-to-house combat of April taught the Marines a hard lesson: The kind of "hearts and minds" campaign that many had envisioned while preparing at Camp Pendleton was not going to fly in the core of the Sunni Triangle, where resentment against the U.S. presence is pervasive and unlikely to diminish, many Marines acknowledge.

The thin-skinned Humvees that made up much of the Marine fleet this spring have been largely replaced by the tank-like "up-armored" version -- but only after many casualties resulted from the lack of armor, Marines say. "We ask ourselves all the time why they didn't come earlier," one officer said.

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