U.S. Troops Still Dying in Ramadi Amid 'Relative Peace, Tranquillity'

Although ambushes and bombings are routine there, the city doesn't need a Fallouja-style crackdown, say officers with a military unit.

By John Hendren

Los Angeles Times

December 1, 2004

RAMADI, Iraq — The capital of Iraq's most rebellious province is undergoing a week of "relative peace and tranquillity," Army Col. Gary S. Patton said.

Minutes later, a roadside bomb exploded beneath his Humvee — the seventh time in the last 2 1/2 months.

"I'm not going anywhere with that guy," said Lt. Jonathan Morgenstein, a 32-year-old former teacher from Arlington, Va. "He's like a shrapnel magnet."

Immediately after the bombing, Patton left his wounded translator and gunner in the care of medics and headed to a memorial service for a slain Marine, where he apologized for his late arrival.

During a four-day period ending Monday, another roadside bomb and what soldiers here call routine ambushes killed four U.S. troops and wounded several more in downtown Ramadi and neighboring Habbaniya.

An insurgent rocket soared harmlessly into the gap between a reporter's tent and the mess hall. Small-arms fire on the outskirts of Camp Ramadi is so commonplace that troops no longer look up from their books and magazines.

The deadliest attack occurred Monday, when a car bomb exploded outside a police station near Ramadi, killing 12 Iraqi police officers and wounding 10.

"We face cutthroat criminals, die-hard insurgents and fanatical terrorists every day. Now, some days more than others," said Patton, commander of the 2nd Army Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team. "And this last week we basically think the die-hard terrorists … are licking their wounds. They're regrouping after what we've done here in Fallouja and Ramadi."

Ramadi symbolizes the challenge faced by U.S.-led forces and the fledgling government in trying to tame a region dominated by Sunni Muslims who lost their power with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Although the assault on neighboring Fallouja has stemmed the flow of militants here, daily insurgent attacks still make Ramadi one of the most lethal spots for American troops in Iraq.

Patton's aides cannot post framed photos of dead troops on the wall of his makeshift headquarters quickly enough. About 30 U.S. troops have been killed here since Patton arrived eight weeks ago. Military officials say the attacks continue because guerrillas have enlisted unemployed Iraqis.

Paying cash-strapped locals is part of an insurgent campaign of intimidation designed to ensure that the Jan. 30 elections are not held, officials said. Of Iraq's 18 provinces, Al Anbar is the only one where violence has kept all the voter registration offices from opening.

During a four-hour patrol in Tamim, the city's most peaceful neighborhood, several residents declined to have a photo taken with American troops, fearing reprisals from insurgents. Among them was a friendly local imam's son, who was unwilling to take sides between the troops and the men whom locals refer to as the mujahedin.

"You Americans have a legitimate point of view," Bilal Rawi told a Marine lieutenant in reasoned tones. "Of course, the insurgents have a legitimate point of view as well."

Despite calls from some senior U.S. commanders for a crackdown in Ramadi similar to the massive assault on Fallouja, Patton and his senior officers say recent progress shows they don't need it.

"This is not Fallouja. It's occupied," said Maj. Steve Alexander, the brigade's operations officer. "No one needs to come here and attack Ramadi…. But we still think Ramadi is going to be a capital for the insurgency, because it's a capital of the province. After the elections, people are going to forget about Fallouja. The focus will shift back to Ramadi."

Patton said local Iraqi national guard troops are "not effective" due to insurgent threats against their families.

But U.S. officials say the performance of Iraqi guards has progressed, if only by local standards.

"We've seen a real improvement," said reservist Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mike Reineke, who is charged with winning local hearts and minds through public works and home visits. But last week, he had to join in a house raid because the Marines were short-handed. "The other day insurgents shot at the national guard troops, and they actually shot back."

To help support the Iraqi forces, Patton is deploying another unit from western Iraq, whose families are less likely to face intimidation from the closely knit tribal communities in this city of 380,000.

Patton warned that local guard units here cannot patrol as their colleagues in Baghdad do, in the beds of unarmored pickup trucks.

"God help them if they come into Ramadi without armor on their vehicles," said Patton, a gruff, unblinking Pennsylvanian.

The incident that most inspires the commanders here occurred Nov. 20.

A local merchant asked an insurgent to move the roadside bomb he had planted, in stark daylight, outside the man's shop on a downtown strip.

The fighter told the business owner, who was armed with an AK-47 rifle, that he'd been paid $150 to plant it there but would gladly move it for $200.

After an argument ensued, a mob gathered. The irate businessman stowed his rifle in his shop, returned and bashed the insurgent in the head with a wrench, commanders recounted.

The mob joined in, eventually chasing several insurgents down one of Ramadi's main business strips and setting four of their cars on fire.

"You know you're in a rough town when the good guys are torching cars," one U.S. officer said with a chuckle.

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Hendren was recently on assignment with the 2nd Army Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team in Ramadi.