RAMADI, Iraq — U.S. Marines in Ramadi, one of the deadliest cities in Iraq for American forces, decided in June to halt their patrols through the town and set up observation posts in tall buildings instead.
The idea was to show respect for Iraqi sovereignty and cut down on battles with insurgents, in which innocent civilians could be injured. But rather than reducing tensions, the new strategy may be having the opposite effect.
“When we were originally doing patrols, foot and vehicle, a guy would see the coalition pass by his house for 30 seconds once a week and that would be the extent of his contact,” said Lt. Jonathan Hesener, a Marine platoon commander.
“But now everyone in Ramadi sees us on top of the hotel every day as they drive down the street. To them, it’s not decreased presence. It’s a symbol of occupation.”
Much attention is focused on nearby Fallujah as the flash point of violence in Iraq, but it is here in Ramadi that U.S. military officials think that Sunni insurgents must be defeated if the nation is to be stabilized.
The importance of Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital, can’t be overstated: It is the size of Wyoming, encompasses the vital highway to Amman, Jordan, and borders on Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. But officials think that the province cannot be secured until Ramadi — the former base of Saddam Hussein’s special forces — is pacified.
They are already starting out behind the game: Not a single member of the new interim Iraqi government hails from Anbar, a fact that is not lost on local leaders.
With a population of about 400,000, Ramadi also is home to several U.S. military bases, including the headquarters of the 1st Marine Division and of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment — a unit that has suffered one of the highest casualty rates in the postwar period.
In April, after months of relative calm in Ramadi, a dozen Marines were killed in an ambush. The attack kicked off two days of intense fighting and opened a new chapter in the lives of U.S. troops there: They are attacked almost daily, either with roadside explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars or small arms.
More than 129 Marines have been killed in Anbar province since March. At least 30 of them died in Ramadi — at least 22 of those from a single 185-man company of the 2/4 battalion.
Here, as elsewhere in the province, commanders and intelligence officials say, the Americans face a mixed enemy, ranging from smugglers whose incomes have been disrupted to tribal sheiks to foreign jihadists.
What distinguishes the insurgency in Ramadi is its military flavor.
Before the war, it was home to Iraq’s special forces, and when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the 400,000-strong Iraqi military, it was to Ramadi that many of the best-trained fighters returned. Not surprisingly, the resistance here is better organized than anywhere else.
That fact was driven home on April 6. Seemingly out of nowhere, a Marine squad was pinned down during a routine patrol by between 60 and 100 insurgents. The battle claimed 10 Americans that day and two the next in pitched fighting all around the city.
The insurgents were soundly defeated, and have yet to mount another sustained conventional battle. But on three straight Wednesdays in July, they rallied a sizable force and coordinated their opening volleys in a combined fight, using indirect fire, ambushes and then direct fire.
Coordinated attacks are mounted only periodically and are quickly put down. It’s unusual for a gunbattle to last more than 15 minutes, Marines report.
Facing overwhelming firepower, the insurgency has resorted to roadside bombs called improvised explosive devices, which cause the majority of casualties. There have been more than 400 IEDs in just six months on one stretch of road. The Marines find and defuse about 60 percent of them before they can explode.
Unlike in Fallujah, Marines in Ramadi can and do go anywhere they want — but always with redundant layers of protection and under the watch of snipers known as “guardian angels.”
But if the new government in Baghdad is ultimately to take charge in Ramadi, and then throughout Anbar province, much of the work must be done by the Iraqi police and the national guard.
So far, though, the police in Ramadi have not shown themselves able to stand up to the attackers.
In late July, insurgents attacked the home of the governor of Anbar province. It was guarded by 24 policemen, all of whom put down their weapons without firing or calling for backup. The governor’s three sons were kidnapped and the house was ransacked and partially burned.
Within a week, the governor had negotiated for the release of the young men, then fled with his family to Jordan. Marines in Ramadi subsequently arrested the police chief in Ramadi for his suspected involvement in the kidnapping.