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Iraqi City on Edge of Chaos

U.S. troops have tried to win over residents in Ramadi, but a surge in abductions and killings is threatening to create another Fallouja.

September 28, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

RAMADI, Iraq — Insurgents are killing and kidnapping government officials, police and Iraqi national guard members in an apparent campaign to destabilize this city, the capital of Sunni Muslim-dominated Al Anbar province west of Baghdad.

The rash of attacks threatens to eliminate the interim Iraqi government's control over Ramadi, notwithstanding the presence just outside the city of thousands of U.S. Marines and Army soldiers who back the government's authority.

The provincial governor's three sons were kidnapped, and released only after he resigned. More recently, the deputy governor was kidnapped and killed, his body found this month. The president of the regional university and the provincial directors of the national sewage and communications ministries have also been kidnapped, and 10 contractors working for the United States have been assassinated.

Then there are the ominous posters that appeared on the walls of mosques a couple of weeks ago. Directed at Iraqi police and national guardsmen, they read, "Quit or we'll kill you."

The apparent aim is to make Ramadi into an ungovernable area like neighboring Fallouja, where insurgents have free rein. Ramadi and Fallouja represent 70% of Al Anbar's population, according to U.S. estimates.

The erosion of order in Ramadi illustrates the success of the insurgents' methods and the serious problems facing the interim government and its U.S. backers in maintaining stability in Iraq. It also threatens to thwart plans for a national election in January, at least in Al Anbar's main cities. An election that omits key population centers in the so-called Sunni Triangle region would have greatly diminished credibility.

"We do not know who the attackers are or who is backing them," said Ramadi's acting governor, Mohammed Abid Awad. "Are they backed from outside? Nobody knows."

Some victims have disappeared without a word; others have been assassinated, their bodies left on the roads. Still others have fled their jobs, afraid of suffering a fate similar to that of their co-workers.

"There's been a lot of kidnappings, a lot of assassinations, just in the last couple of weeks," said Col. Jerry L. Durrant of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, who oversees the coordination of the U.S. military with Iraqi security forces. "The government in Baghdad is not recognized by anyone in Al Anbar."

Durrant said leaders of the Iraqi national guard do not want to meet him in public or travel in military vehicles. Many no longer wear their uniforms for fear of being identified with the interim government's security forces.

Ramadi is not yet lost, but it is teetering. The Marines, aware of what is at stake, are trying to back up the local government. But they are hamstrung, because taking too visible a role could endanger the lives of Iraqi officials. Working with the Army, Marines are also trying to undertake small reconstruction projects they can complete quickly -- an approach they hope will make a difference in neighborhoods still open to the American presence.

Unlike in Fallouja, where U.S. troops within a hundred yards of the city draw fire, there are areas of Ramadi where Marines and soldiers dismount from their vehicles, talk to residents and respond to their concerns.

"Ramadi is a much more benign environment," said Lt. Col. Mike Cabrey, who runs an Army artillery unit stationed in Ramadi. "I'd like to say it's the civil affairs work we've done that's made a difference."

Between $8 million and $10 million has been spent in the greater Ramadi area, he said.

It may also be the hard work of Cabrey and fellow soldiers in a few discrete neighborhoods. Although he is an artillery expert by assignment and training, Cabrey has taken it upon himself to become deeply involved with projects that provide a combination of money and personal outreach. He visits the ongoing work efforts three times a week, so he maintains a relationship with the people his unit is trying to help.

Regardless, the U.S. military's grip seems tenuous, the insurgency is persistent, and it appears that the troops face an uphill battle to maintain the bonds they have forged with the community.

As a provincial capital with a university, Ramadi has developed an insurgency of a much different character than that of Fallouja, where there appear to be many more Islamic extremists, including Wahhabis and Salafists. But Ramadi is strongly influenced by the tribes, who seem to think they have little to gain by working with the Marines.

"A lot of these guys have read history," said Durrant, recounting a recent meeting with Ramadi tribal sheiks, educators and businessmen. "They said to me the government in Baghdad is like the Vichy government in France during World War II, and I got called a Nazi several times."

The Vichy government was set up by the German Nazi occupation forces and ran a large area of France.

The attacks have discouraged law enforcement efforts by the Iraqi police and national guard, Marine intelligence officers say.

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