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In war, as in life, turning points usually are recognized only in hindsight.

Such is the case in Ramadi, according to Col. Sean B. MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, who led U.S. troops there until late last month.

Ramadi, in the southwest corner of the so-called Sunni Triangle, has been one of the deadliest areas for U.S. troops over the nearly four-year war in Iraq. When MacFarland’s brigade, the “Ready First”, arrived there in May 2006, it was Iraq’s most violent city, with attacks there accounting for nearly half of all attacks in Iraq on some days.

MacFarland was given two bits of guidance going in: “Fix Ramadi, and don’t create another Fallujah. In other words, don’t destroy it in the process,” he said.

The brigade knew Ramadi was no Tal Afar, where most of the troops had spent the first three or so months of their Iraq tour. Tal Afar was an ethnically diverse city where some people greeted the Americans as liberators and made, as MacFarland called them, “built-in allies.”

Ramadi, on the other hand, was dominated by Sunnis, including a large number of former Iraqi officers and Saddam loyalists.

U.S. commanders hadn’t committed nearly enough forces to overwhelm the city, as had been done in Fallujah and Tal Afar. The plan instead was to take the city one piece at a time.

Less than a week after taking responsibility there, “Ready First” — aided by intelligence, special operations forces and what MacFarland called “three-letter agencies” — began establishing a ring of outposts in insurgent strongholds in a campaign to wrest key terrain from the insurgency.

They methodically routed the insurgents from the areas in which they were strongest by implementing a variation of the “clear, hold and build” tactics that had tamed Tal Afar. They rolled into al-Qaida in Iraq strongholds, seized houses and set up combat outposts in the terrorists’ backyards.

“This is like the enemy putting a little safe house next to our chow hall,” Capt. Michael P. McCusker, commander of Company B, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, was quoted as saying in an Aug. 21 Stars and Stripes article. “They don’t like this at all.”

“In my experience in the Army, that was probably the best working relationship I had, interagency, joint, conventional, unconventional all working together to achieve a common aim,” MacFarland said.

But for the most part, the brigade made little headway in getting Ramadi’s citizens to join the fight against the insurgency, MacFarland said. That is, until Aug. 21. That day, an influential sheik in a Ramadi suburb was killed by al-Qaida in Iraq militants, who held his body for four days and prevented him from being buried in the Muslim tradition.

“That was the decisive miscalculation by al-Qaida that we were able to exploit and that will ultimately lead to the downfall of AQ in al-Anbar province,” MacFarland said. “Al-Qaida had its Waterloo.”

However, at the time, the sheik’s slaying wasn’t recognized as a possible tipping point.

But shortly after the sheik was slain, a group of sheiks — mostly from Ramadi, but some from other parts of Anbar as well — banded together to form a movement against the insurgency. They call it the “Anbar Awakening” movement.

The sheiks aligned with the movement had had enough of the insurgency. They told MacFarland they wanted to help the Americans root out al-Qaida in Iraq. The decision had an immediate impact on the battle for Ramadi.

“Wherever one of these tribes joined the awakening movement, attacks on American forces in that tribal area ceased,” MacFarland said. “It was phenomenal.”

Almost overnight, police recruiting shot up as sheiks recruited members of their own tribes to join the force. There were only about 140 police in Ramadi, a city of roughly 400,000, when the brigade rolled in, and those police didn’t patrol. By the end of January, there were more than 4,000 police.

“You’ve taken away every non-altruistic reason for doing this. It’s not for money. It’s not because they’ll be taking over a militia. It’s not because they’ll be getting any power out of it,” Capt. Thomas Breslin, a member of the 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, was quoted as saying in a Jan. 17 Stars and Stripes article. “They’re defending their homes.”

The tribes, with American backing, accomplished more in Ramadi and its suburbs since the awakening than U.S. and Iraqi government forces together had in nearly three years there.

“I saw a lot more cooperation and honesty from the tribes than I saw from the Iraqi government,” MacFarland said.

One of his goals was to get the tribes to join the government, in the hope that some of that cooperation and honesty would transfer over. That process was starting when the brigade left last month.

“The objective, what you’re really fighting for, is control of the people. And the tribes control the people,” MacFarland said. “And when the tribes step up and say, ‘Hey we want to work with the coalition,’ you’ve won.”

He acknowledges, however, that the battle there isn’t over. Some of the most hard-core enemy fighters remain holed up in the city’s downtown, where operations to rout them are ongoing.

“There’s still hard fighting to be done,” MacFarland said confidently, “but the decisive victory has already been won.”

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