Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment pass out blankets and food in a town south of Ramadi. The mission, dubbed Operation Robin Hood, is part of the 2nd Brigade’s efforts to build a relationship with the local population.

Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment pass out blankets and food in a town south of Ramadi. The mission, dubbed Operation Robin Hood, is part of the 2nd Brigade’s efforts to build a relationship with the local population. (Andrew D. Young / Courtesy 2nd Brigade Combat Team)

RAMADI, Iraq — Four months ago, when the 2nd Brigade Combat Team arrived in Ramadi, the local population certainly did not roll out the welcome mat. But in the intervening months, as the brigade adjusted its operations and sought more interaction, the relationship has gotten decidedly better.

With the Jan. 30 elections looming in Ramadi — one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities for U.S. servicemembers — 2nd Infantry Division officials say they have a plan in place and are encouraged by a change in sentiments around the region.

“Four months ago, we were doing ‘movement to contact’ patrols every day. We were an obtrusive presence,” Col. Gary S. Patton, brigade commander, said Saturday. “Now, we’ve established a security base in the city, and we’re doing more precision raids. We’re getting good intel from the local population. When we first got here, that wasn’t happening.”

Patton points to two recent examples. Last week, acting on a tip, 2nd Brigade forces swept up 20 “named targets” in a single raid. A few weeks earlier, members of the unit performed something even more unthinkable when they first arrived.

“We staged ambushes out of people’s houses and killed nine-man terror squads,” Patton said. Before, he said, someone would have alerted the insurgents to their presence.

“Things we couldn’t do four months ago, we’ve done in the past 45 days.”

The brigade, which includes 3,500 soldiers, has completed $1.5 million worth of civil projects during that time and helped create 800 new jobs, officials said. Universities and schools opened on time this fall, and city officials are returning to their jobs.

But brigade officials acknowledge they are in the midst of what Patton called a “classic counterinsurgency fight” in a city with a population approaching 400,000.

Since deploying to Iraq, the brigade has lost at least 36 soldiers to enemy actions ranging from small-arms fire to roadside bombs. Dozens more soldiers have been seriously wounded.

The peak of the attacks happened during Ramadan and included 18 suicide car bomb attacks, said Maj. Steve Alexander, brigade operations officer.

“That was the defining event so far,” he said. “That was when we saw a serious spike in violence.”

Since then, things quieted a little, he said. But as the elections draw closer, the brigade is seeing the action pick up again. Patrols have come under fire nearly every day, mortars have been shot at bases and a crowd of children threw rocks at one unit last week.

The insurgents around Ramadi are made up of at least five different groups, Alexander said, ranging from former Baathists to foreign fighters bent on jihad.

“The former regime elements really have the most long-term goals and long-term strategy,” he said. “The jihadists seem much more interested in just killing people.”

Most of the groups have shifted their focus to an intimidation campaign targeting anyone — especially local Iraqi National Guardsmen or Iraqi police — who work with U.S. troops. But each part of the insurgency has its specialties, Alexander said. Some are former mortarmen from Saddam’s army; others are former secret service agents who are trained in terror and intimidation; others are simple direct-action cells who attack with small-arms.

“They can’t be underestimated operationally or strategically,” he said. “But tactically, we always win.”

For the elections, the brigade has received a special battalion of Iraqi commandos who have fought alongside U.S. units from Mosul to Fallujah. The key, said Maj. Robert Proctor, the brigade’s Iraqi Security Forces development officer, is that the commandos are not from the local area.

The intimidation campaign — which saw five of the eight police stations in Ramadi destroyed or looted by insurgents — largely doesn’t work on the commandos, Proctor said.

“We’re introducing forces that without a doubt are willing to engage and destroy the insurgents. They’ve show that fighting alongside the soldiers and Marines in Fallujah,” Proctor said.

The commando battalion, led by a career military man named Col. Muhammed, has already started patrols with 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry soldiers in downtown Ramadi. The big test will come on election day, both for the Iraqi and U.S. forces, officials said.

One challenge, Maj. Tom Munsey, the brigade fire support and information operations officer, said is the relatively high illiteracy rate outside of Ramadi, which was once known as a university town.

“The big impression I get is that the people of Ramadi are tired of the fighting,” Munsey said. “The question I always ask, and one that I haven’t gotten a straight answer to yet, is ‘What was Ramadi like five years ago?’”

Second Brigade officials bristle at comparisons of Ramadi to Fallujah or reports that label it an “insurgent stronghold.” Since Day One, they note, 2nd Brigade soldiers have patrolled in Ramadi; on the other hand, Fallujah was a “no-go” zone for coalition forces until the November assault.

“It’s a contested city, that’s for sure. I don’t think we can quite see the light at the end of the tunnel yet,” said Alexander, the operations officer. “But we’ve at least turned the corner and can see some doors we might be able to get to.”

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