Mideast edition, Tuesday, June 5, 2007

This time last year, Ramadi was arguably the most dangerous city in Iraq. Nowadays, it’s not exactly a model of peace and stability, but the threat to U.S. troops in some sectors of the city has gone down considerably.

In western Ramadi, an area patrolled and protected by the 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, it’s been more than four months since a U.S. soldier lost his life, and there has been just one serious injury in that time.

“We’re as safe as safe can be in a war zone,” Lt. Col. Miciotto O. Johnson, commander of the 1/77, said in a telephone interview. “But,” he said, “we are at war. We understand that.”

Johnson said his soldiers are extremely busy, and there’s not much time for play. They have time to exercise, if they want, and they have phones and entertainment centers available, he said.

And despite the long hours and the news that they will have to spend 15 months in Iraq rather than the 12 months they’d hoped for, “Morale is great,” he said.

“Of course, soldiers really didn’t like to hear the word extension, but they’ve accepted it now and we’re committed to leaving Iraq better than we’ve found it.”

He still doesn’t know exactly when his unit will be able to leave and return to Schweinfurt, where the 1/77, part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, is based. He does know they will be home before the end of the year.

In the meantime, his soldiers would continue to focus on projects to boost the infrastructure and economy of Ramadi, both of which have been ravaged by four years of combat.

“I think if you asked my troops, to a man, he would say that we have made a difference here in the western side of Ramadi,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s piece of Ramadi is 30 by 50 kilometers in size and the biggest task force sector in the city. The sector hasn’t always been this safe, if any part of the city can be reasonably characterized as safe. He lost eight soldiers before hitting the midpoint of his tour, and the makeshift bombs that are the enemy’s weapon of choice in most of Iraq were a constant threat.

With the help of Iraqi police and army soldiers, “We’ve eradicated that threat, primarily,” Johnson said.

The relative peacefulness in Ramadi is in large part thanks to local tribal leaders who changed alliances. Those who made the switch decided to help the U.S. and turned against al-Qaida, which is responsible for most violence in the city.

Since the switch, local Iraqis have joined the police and army in droves, and they’re doing what they hadn’t done before: They’re standing up to al-Qaida.

“The Iraqis are putting themselves in the same harm’s way that my soldiers are, and we appreciate that,” Johnson said.

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