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.

By Patrick J. McDonnell

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 25, 2004

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 dramatical ly.

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 cou ntry."

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.

Still, little here is completely safe, no matter how much armor is used. Venturing outside a base in Ramadi is a gut-clenching experience, even though the fortified outposts have helped reduce the prevalence of roadside bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices.

"We heard about IEDs before we got here, but nobody realized that Ramadi was just saturated with IEDs," said Capt. Rob Weiler, who heads the battalion mobile assault company.

One of the main tasks of the observation posts is to spot and kill bomb-emplacement teams, while also being alert to mortar men, car bombers, ambush squads and other attackers.

The insurgents know exactly where the Marines are and regard the posts as prime targets: Four Marines were killed last month in Ramadi when their post was overrun in the early morning darkness; stunning images of the sniper team's dead and bloodied bodies sprawled on a rooftop were captured on vid eotape and broadcast worldwide. Marine commanders decline to provide details on how the post could have been taken — apparently by surprise, with no time for backup to arrive.

The ferocity of the fighting in Ramadi and the tenacity of the mujahedin — as the insurgents are widely known, though one commander favors the snappier "Johnny Jihad" — have produced a very specific view of who the enemy is here: A mostly home-grown mix of anti-U.S. nationalists, loyalists of Saddam Hussein's former regime and a seemingly endless supply of part-time fighters — many former members of the Iraqi army — willing to pick up a rifle or grenade launcher to fire at U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies.

Most insurgents here, the Marines say, are natives of the Ramadi area, where the insular tribal culture and tradition of cross-border smuggling have fostered an undercurrent of violence and suspicion of outsiders. Even Hussein's regime had difficulty exerting full control.

Neith er foreign fighters nor religious militants drive the insurgency here, commanders say, though both strains are present. "It's one big overlapping mishmash," said Maj. Michael P. Wylie, battalion executive officer.

The cell networks can be virtually impenetrable, and seem to regenerate quickly after leaders are arrested during Marine raids.

"It's not as if we have foolproof intel — we're dealing with a different language, a different culture," said Capt. Kelly Royer of Echo Company, which has lost 18 Marines — by far the most of any company.

Marines speak of a classic urban guerrilla force — a transient, elusive enemy that quickly melts into the population, spiriting away all evidence of its presence.

"It's like ghost fighters," Cpl. Hamby said. "You can get into a firefight, and afterward when you go to the exact spot you were firing at, you won't find any shell cases, bodies, nothing. They grab everything and they're gone."

The insurgents are belie ved to have used captured U.S. materiel against the Marines, including a lone Humvee seen wandering about like a phantom ship — though the latter accounts have acquired the feel of an urban legend.

There are few illusions among U.S. troops here about being liked in a city where ubiquitous graffiti extol the exploits of the "brave" mujahedin and declares, "Down With the U.S.A."

"They pretty much hate us here," said one Marine commander as his Humvee maneuvered through the dangerous side streets of Ramadi's explosive south side, where fighting was intense in April. Slim youths approached with smiles on a recent morning — and then let loose with a barrage of stones.

Arriving at the Islamic Law Center, where the Marines of Squad 3 were pulling a 12-hour shift the other day, is an unequivocal war zone exercise: Several Humvees block all traffic along Highway 10 and form a safety cordon with machine guns at the ready, while other Marines dismount and train their weapons on build ings, passersby and vehicles. Relieving troops sprint the final 10 yards or so to the metal front door, which is quickly opened and shut.

The four-story brick and concrete structure offers a strategic perch near downtown. Claymore mines are laid within the walls of the now heavily damaged center, where junked computers still sit in a classroom and bookshelves brim with law books in Arabic, English and French.

Marines say their task here is mostly about waiting, watching for insurgents planting bombs or laying ambushes, and then repelling the assault.

That morning, men with AK-47s were seen mingling among civilians at a taxi stand across the street to the north. A pickup truck disgorged more fighters from the east. At least three attackers were killed in the ensuing, adrenaline-charged 10-minute fight, the Marines say; no Marines were hurt. Marines fired half a dozen rockets, destroying the taxi kiosk, which lay in a ruin of bricks and mortar.

The months of fighting have made it clear to these Marines that they are in an inhospitable place where much of the population would like to see them gone — and many want them dead. A decisive military victory here is widely viewed as unlikely, Marines say.

The recent hand-over of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government was generally welcomed as the first step in an exit strategy that eventually will remove the incendiary presence of U.S. troops — and put Iraqis in the front lines of their own fight.

"Personally, I see this as a stalemate: We could keep fighting in this same manner forever," said Lance Cpl. David Goward, 26, who had a copy of "The Great Gatsby" to read in his spare moments. "They have no shortage of weapons. And neither do we. As long as Americans are here, they're going to keep on fighting."