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A stroll, not a patrol, for U.S. general

Petraeus, the top Iraq commander, visits a longtime hotbed of the insurgency to illustrate residents' attitude shift.

March 14, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

RAMADI, IRAQ — The commander of U.S. troops in Iraq wanted some sweets, and nothing was going to stop him. Not even the fact that he was tramping through a neighborhood that only days ago had been teeming with snipers and Al Qaeda fighters who would love nothing better than to say they just shot Gen. David H. Petraeus.

With soldiers casting anxious glances along the desolate dirt road, the four-star Army general made a beeline for a tiny shop and helped himself to a bite-sized, honey-coated pastry proffered by the owner.

Oblivious to the flies buzzing around his head, Petraeus chatted briefly with a man who said his cafe had been damaged in recent battles between U.S. forces and insurgents.

Then, after promising compensation for the cafe owner, Petraeus hiked on. "Tell him the next time I come back to Ramadi, we'll eat his chow," Petraeus said as he headed into the blistering sun.

Days ago, this might not have been possible, but in an effort to show off what they say has been a shift of allegiance among residents in Sunni Arab insurgent territory, U.S. and Iraqi officials Tuesday brought an all-star cast of military and political figures to Ramadi.

While Petraeus did his walkabout, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki visited with regional sheiks, his first stop here since becoming prime minister 10 months ago and part of a campaign to ensure loyalty from powerful Sunnis who once harbored insurgents.

The campaign gained momentum last fall when a group of sheiks from across the western province of Al Anbar, whose capital is Ramadi, met with Maliki in Baghdad.

Just what led to the sheiks' decision to work with the U.S.-backed, Shiite Muslim-dominated government after years of supporting Sunni insurgents depends on whom you ask.

U.S. military officials say the sheiks finally realized that by boycotting the December 2005 elections that eventually brought Maliki to power and refusing to be a part of his government, they were missing out on valuable economic opportunities for their cities and towns.

"This is part of joining the process," said the commander of multinational forces in this region, Marine Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin. "They realize that if they had taken part in the elections, well, perhaps some of these sheiks would be the governor or the provincial chairman."

Sunni leaders here have another version: They simply got fed up with Al Qaeda in Iraq's brutality. They came to see the group, which touts itself as an Islamic force repelling foreign occupiers, as a terrorist organization hell-bent on taking over their lives, even killing innocent civilians.

Maj. Shabah Ahmed, an Iraqi army officer in Ramadi, said the turning point for him, and for many Ramadi residents, came a little more than a year ago, when a suicide bomber walked into an abandoned glass factory that was being used as a police recruiting station and detonated his explosive vest, killing scores of young men.

"That's when we realized that these people don't distinguish between the sons of our city and the soldiers," Ahmed said. "They just have an agenda to destroy."

Whatever the reason, U.S. military officials in Ramadi say the switch has been crucial to enabling U.S. and Iraqi forces to make headway here after years of battling to drive out the Al Qaeda in Iraq militants.

The region is part of what military officials consider the "belt" around Baghdad, and securing it is seen as key to making the latest U.S.-Iraqi security plan a success. "You have to secure some of these belt areas that feed into Baghdad, and the route along the Euphrates River valley is a dagger that goes right to the heart of Baghdad," Petraeus said.

Ahmed spoke while standing in a joint U.S.-Iraqi outpost established in a former high school in Ramadi, a former industrial center on the Euphrates River with a population once estimated at 400,000. Today, there are few traces of its status as a provincial capital. Fighting between U.S.-led forces and Sunni insurgents has sapped the city, and it continues on a regular basis as the American and Iraqi troops try to drive out the insurgents, one neighborhood at a time.

Smashed remains of the government headquarters line the main road leading toward the center of town. Jagged holes from bullets, bombs and rockets pock most buildings. The only thing that appears relatively unscathed is the massive Saddam Mosque, named for Iraq's former leader, Saddam Hussein.

Other than a dog snoozing on the side of the road and cats scavenging for scraps, there were few signs of life as a military convoy rumbled down a main drag Tuesday.

Three weeks ago, troops from the Army's 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, out of Ft. Carson, Colo., mounted an offensive to secure this section of Ramadi, which Lt. Col. Charles Ferry said had been an insurgent safe area. Working with Iraqi troops, Ferry and his soldiers battled for several nights to secure a foothold and move into an abandoned building.

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