- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

RAMADI, Iraq

U.S. troops are switching tactics in the fight against insurgents in parts of this rebellious city, replacing confrontation with courtesy in hopes of winning public trust and undercutting support for the militants.

It’s too early to assess the change, which is largely confined to the more affluent western areas of Ramadi, a city of nearly 400,000 people that is considered the most violent in Iraq’s restive Anbar province.

Still, U.S. officers think the new approach is paying off. Attacks are down enough in western Ramadi to allow Iraqi soldiers to patrol larger areas without Americans at their side.

“We’ve had some success in making inroads to the population there,” said Army Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, which oversees all U.S. military forces in the city. “We’re beginning to see a turn there for the better.”

Marines based in western Ramadi now regularly knock on people’s front doors instead of storming through. Instead of roaming the streets in armored Humvees, Marines took a census of the area — sitting down and listening to people’s concerns and complaints.

“You’d be surprised at how many people in Ramadi are shocked when we knock and ask to come in. And in Arab culture, it makes all the difference,” said 2nd Lt. Ryan Hub of Sumter, S.C., who as a teenager lived in Kuwait for two years while his Air Force officer father was stationed there.

To reinforce their goodwill gestures, Marines are trying to repair Ramadi’s water works to demonstrate that Americans can improve conditions. Reconstruction projects in the city have long been stalled because of persistent sabotage by insurgents.

The changed approach also applies to the Iraqi army. Marines recently held public meetings at which residents could scold Iraqi soldiers for purportedly mistreating residents and stealing from their homes.

“It was time for a different fight in Ramadi,” said Capt. Max Barela, 36, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. “I’ve been told that we’re conducting ourselves more as police than Marines.”

Less U.S. firepower is being used. Commanders say they are content to let gunmen escape if retaliatory fire could injure civilians or cause serious property damage.

No air strikes have been called in by Capt. Barela’s unit, which arrived here in March. During the winter, Marines ordered more than a dozen aerial bombings in western Ramadi.

In more dangerous areas of the city, Marines still use aggressive tactics — such as blowing in doors with shotguns when residents don’t immediately answer the door — to evade any gunmen. But they want to get away from that.

“You’ve got an enemy that understands the effects of our mistakes,” Lt. Hub said, referring to damage caused by U.S. forces that insurgents trumpet in propaganda. “I think part of the battle of Ramadi is the [information campaign] that insurgents are winning.”

Earlier this year, Marines thought the city was not ready for softer methods. Tactics such as random vehicle searches took a sharp edge: Marines would toss stun grenades at randomly selected vehicles, then rush the drivers with guns pointed.

“If you’re treating everyone like terrorists, kicking down doors and tearing through their homes, that’s what you’ll get — terrorists,” said Cpl. Daniel Tarantino, 21, of Gainesville, Ga.

There is little sign of change in central Ramadi, where street battles are common, or in southern neighborhoods, where few American patrols have ventured in months. And violence still flares in western Ramadi, although at lower levels.

But Marines think the new approach is working in the west, where wealthier and better educated Iraqis live. The provincial governor, as well as hundreds of fellow tribesmen from the Alwani clan, lives in the area. Two sprawling U.S. bases are nearby.

Basic military tactics also have helped reduce violence in that area. Marines installed concrete roadblocks on getaway routes once used by insurgents. Marines also walk 15 to 20 miles a week through the area’s streets, citing the refrain, “Patrol it, or you don’t control it.”

Even here, though, the tension of war still grates on Marines. One Marine, sweating during an overnight patrol that snaked deep into the city, cursed at a boy in a driveway to keep his lights off. Another Marine struggled to contain his temper with an Iraqi man who didn’t understand English.

“It’s difficult for a lot of Marines to accept. It’s not the Marine ethos,” Lt. Hub said of the new tactics. “The history of the Marine Corps is that they’re known for overwhelming firepower.”

Commanders point to the long stretch of devastated buildings that make up downtown Ramadi to skeptics who argue that the city’s people first need to fear the U.S. military before order can be restored.

“It requires 10 times more discipline to win a counterinsurgency than to win a total war. Any Marine can go out in the city and kill people, but this requires discipline, and to think more,” said 2nd Lt. John Warren, 27, of Greenville, S.C.

Capt. Barela concedes the approach carries added risks but says his Marines try to vigorously follow tactics that make them “hard to kill.” Several Marines in the company have been wounded, but none has been killed.

“We’ve risked a lot to put ourselves in contact with the Iraqi people,” Capt. Barela said.

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