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A two-pronged approach in Ramadi neighborhood

Iraqi forces search for insurgents as U.S. troops build a police station.

January 05, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

RAMADI, IRAQ — Several hundred Iraqi soldiers and police officers conducted a house-to-house search Thursday through the dangerous Tamim neighborhood of this western city while U.S. forces feverishly began building an Iraqi police station in the onetime insurgent stronghold.

U.S. and Iraqi commanders said the effort, dubbed Operation Casablanca, was a sign of the growing competency of the Iraqi forces in this provincial capital of sprawling Al Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency.

The Iraqi forces searched apartment buildings and businesses for suspected insurgents. Few were found, which officials said was because the militants might have anticipated the offensive.

The 2,000-square-foot police station, near the mosque, market and elementary school, is set to be completed by Sunday and will be staffed by Iraqi forces and their U.S. Army trainers.

During the mission, Iraqi soldiers danced in the streets, waving their rifles and Iraqi flags, chanting, "This is our land, this is our country, death to terrorists!" The U.S. supplied logistics and communications for the early morning assault. A hundred combat troops and several tanks from the Army's Task Force 1-77 Armor stayed on the outskirts of the neighborhood in case the Iraqis needed backup.

"These people [the insurgents] put a roadside bomb outside a kindergarten -- that shows what bad people they are," said Ramadi Police Chief Khaleel Ibrahim Hamad.

When a crowd of young men began forming, a Marine jet made a screaming pass at 500 feet, as a show of force. Near the end of the mission, a roadside bomb exploded inside a home, apparently detonated accidentally by the bomb maker.

Loudspeakers warned residents: "Stay inside your homes. You will not be harmed. The Iraqi forces are searching for terrorists."

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Miciotto Johnson, the task force commander, said Operation Casablanca, named for a World War II battle, would be a turning point for the Tamim neighborhood because it would provide a police station for the first time.

A year ago, insurgents destroyed every police station in Ramadi on the same day. That, and a series of assassinations and other attacks, persuaded the city's tribal sheiks to drop their neutrality in the fight between U.S. forces and the insurgents.

Since then, Army and Marine personnel have established outposts and police stations throughout the city. At the urging of their tribal sheiks, residents are volunteering for the police. About 2,000 are already on duty and an additional 800 volunteered in December.

Some schools have reopened. The Iraqi police provide security for a local university, and Ramadi General Hospital, once virtually abandoned, has hundreds of patients.

As the provincial capital, Ramadi is of strategic and symbolic importance to both the U.S. and the insurgency.

"Ramadi is a tough fight," said Army Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division. "Al Qaeda can't leave this place alone; they can't."

MacFarland said recent successes had changed Ramadi's reputation as the place where U.S. forces were unable to make progress against an entrenched insurgency.

"It's not a stalemate here," MacFarland said.

"We're not in the trenches of World War I or the rice paddies of Vietnam."

But Ramadi, with a population of about 400,000 people, remains a dangerous place. Police stations have been attacked twice in recent weeks, with Iraqi forces fighting back, Army officials said.

The provincial governing council fled to Baghdad, leaving the city with no functioning local government.

American casualties are high, a circumstance MacFarland attributes to aggressive U.S. tactics.

"We're attacking them; when you're on the offensive, casualties are going to be higher than if you're strictly defensive," he said.

"War is a contest of wills -- a test to see who is willing to keep fighting longer than the other guy," MacFarland said. "Who is willing to fight longer, the [U.S.] Army or Al Qaeda or the Iraqi security forces?"

Johnson said Operation Casablanca was in keeping with the goal of helping Iraqis get ready to handle security duties themselves.

"Everything we do has to include Iraqi security forces because that's truly the way we can exit this country," he said.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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