Monday, March 12, 2007

HADITHA, Iraq — Haditha is like a police state, surrounded by a dirt berm topped with concertina wire, with two tightly controlled entrances and no private cars permitted to drive in the town proper.

“That’s what it is; that’s what it needs to be,” said U.S. Lt. Col. Jim Donnellan, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.

The U.S. military built the berms in December and January, part of a “clear, hold and build” operation called “al Majid” to bring this critical area of Haditha under coalition and Iraqi police control.

Unlike other battle zones in violent Anbar province west of Baghdad, where towns and cities have been emptied and every building searched to drive out terrorists and insurgents, the clearing of Haditha and two nearby towns — Barwanah and Haglaniyah — was carried out with the people still in their homes.

The operation represents a maturing of counterinsurgency tactics, said Col. Donnellan and other officers.

“For this phase of the war, if we’re still kicking in doors and going house to house and telling the entire city to get out, things are pretty bleak,” Col. Donnellan said.

The clearing served as an advertisement that the U.S. Marines and the reconstituted Haditha police department — comprising a charismatic local chief and 200 officers, many of them Shi’ites from southern Iraq — now would be exerting their will over the city instead of the insurgents.

U.S. Marines serving in the Iraqi city of Haditha still feel the psychological weight of the November 2005 massacre, when a squad of Marines reportedly fatally shot 24 Hadithans shortly after one of their troops was killed by a roadside bomb.

Hadithans don’t bring up the incident with the Americans much these days. It may be purely a political calculation, telling the occupiers what they want to hear. It may be low expectations of anyone in power, a heightened tolerance of violence or simply war weariness. It may be, as the Marines in Haditha hope, that the locals have moved on and welcome the security improvements wrought in the last three months.

Whatever the reason, an entrenched insurgency, aided by outside terrorists, are no longer in charge of the city and nearby towns that they controlled from late 2004 through much of last year.

“We didn’t anticipate finding a lot [of weapons] in their homes during the clearing because they’ve all gotten smarter than that,” Col. Donnellan said.

The caches that were found — and they were substantial — were in wadis, palm groves and sheds where there was plausible deniability as to whom they belonged.

Successful campaigns to pacify cities in Iraq follow a general pattern: Terrorists and insurgents have to be killed, captured, pushed out of town or pushed underground through a clearing operation. Then locals need assurance that U.S. and Iraqi government forces are capable of keeping the enemy at bay.

If their confidence grows, they share information that further roots out the adversary. Gradually, markets open and normalcy takes hold. The adversary wages counterattacks, but if public confidence in coalition forces remain, the adversary no longer can maintain a foothold. It is not peace by any stretch of an American imagination, but it is stability. That is the goal.

“Eighty, 90 percent of the time you win on the intangibles. It’s a battle of wills. I tell all the Sunnis that will listen that all the time. It’s just a big ugly game of pushball right now. We’ve got all our guys behind the ball,” Col. Donnellan said.

Progress in security is verifiable. In the first week after the battalion took over Haditha, the town was hit by 22 attacks. That was down to one or two attacks a week since the clearing operation.

Anecdotally, it appears that things are improving. Local residents line up early outside the battalion’s civil-affairs office to get permits to drive and work on infrastructure projects.

One group of men carries a sign that says, “Don’t shoot, water men.” They will be fixing a broken pipe on the American base downtown, something that would not have happened in the fall. To cooperate with the Americans would have meant risking their lives.

A U.S. captain took a small group of Marines down to the souk to procure a hot lunch of lamb on a stick.

“We were there enjoying our kebabs in the exact place I lost my first Marine,” said Echo Company commander Capt. Matt Tracy. “It was phenomenal, laughing and joking with the shopkeepers, who three months ago would have been terrified of being seen in the same location as us. Victory, I’m telling ya, it’s right there.”

Col. Donnellan was more cautious in his assessment. “We’re inside the tent. That doesn’t mean we can’t blow it.”

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