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Pvt. George Maxham, 24, of Farmington, Maine, uses a cigarette lighter to apply camouflage face paint to Pvt. Andrew Ralston, of Eden Prairie, Minn., before a recent mission in downtown Ramadi.
Pvt. George Maxham, 24, of Farmington, Maine, uses a cigarette lighter to apply camouflage face paint to Pvt. Andrew Ralston, of Eden Prairie, Minn., before a recent mission in downtown Ramadi. (Monte Morin / S&S)
Pvt. George Maxham, 24, of Farmington, Maine, uses a cigarette lighter to apply camouflage face paint to Pvt. Andrew Ralston, of Eden Prairie, Minn., before a recent mission in downtown Ramadi.
Pvt. George Maxham, 24, of Farmington, Maine, uses a cigarette lighter to apply camouflage face paint to Pvt. Andrew Ralston, of Eden Prairie, Minn., before a recent mission in downtown Ramadi. (Monte Morin / S&S)
Iraqi Police Major Obrahim Jassim said it is taking time for his officers to gain the cooperation of downtown Ramadi residents because of an intimidation campaign waged by Islamist militants there.
Iraqi Police Major Obrahim Jassim said it is taking time for his officers to gain the cooperation of downtown Ramadi residents because of an intimidation campaign waged by Islamist militants there. (Monte Morin / S&S)
1st Lt. Joshua Drake, 24, of Lakeland, Fla. (wearing helmet) questions Iraqi men through his interpreter during a search of homes in Ramadi early Wednesday morning. The men were not taken into custody.
1st Lt. Joshua Drake, 24, of Lakeland, Fla. (wearing helmet) questions Iraqi men through his interpreter during a search of homes in Ramadi early Wednesday morning. The men were not taken into custody. (Monte Morin / S&S)
A young Iraqi Police officer unearths a hidden weapons cache in downtown Ramadi recently.
A young Iraqi Police officer unearths a hidden weapons cache in downtown Ramadi recently. (Monte Morin / S&S)

RAMADI, Iraq — The Iraqi Police major sat at a plywood desk, puffing on a Miami cigarette.

It had been three weeks since he and a small contingent of young police officers moved into Combat Outpost Iron, a small joint security station on the southern edge of downtown Ramadi, and the major was getting frustrated.

Although he was a respected sheik and a veteran of Saddam Hussein’s army — a top pedigree for this Sunni Arab city — the major said he and his men were having difficulty getting downtown residents to cooperate with them and share information on insurgent activity.

“When we came here, the people were very pleased to see Iraqi Police here,” said Maj. Obrahim Jassim. “But they are scared to deal with us. The Iraqis as a people don’t scare easily, but this al-Qaida organization is very strong. They are murderers and they do not hesitate to kill anyone.”

Fighters tied to al-Qaida in Iraq and other local Islamist militant groups are waging a brutal and desperate campaign of intimidation against city residents and government officials, according to U.S. and Iraqi Police commanders. Enemy fighters have targeted Iraqi Police commanders and government officials for assassination, and have distributed grisly DVDs of executions to city residents to discourage them from “collaborating” with U.S. and Iraq security forces.

While much of western Ramadi and those suburbs and rural areas that skirt the city’s northern districts have seen a tremendous drop in violence — due in large measure to a recent and unprecedented alliance between area tribes and U.S. forces — downtown Ramadi remains a violent battleground.

More than a week ago, Jassim and his officers ventured into the city’s center with containers of propane gas they planned to distribute to residents. The gas, which is used for cooking, is scarce and badly needed by residents, he said.

When it came time to hand out the canisters, though, the officers found the neighborhood deserted.

“People wanted the fuel supplies, but they were afraid to take it because of the terrorists,” Jassim said. “All the men had left the area that day so we couldn’t force them to take it.”

Much of the problem, U.S. commanders say, is that downtown Ramadi lacks the formal tribal structure that characterizes areas in the city’s north. In those areas that do have a strong tribal network, Iraqi Police recruiting has surged. Over the last eight months, the total number of Iraqi Police in the area has rocketed from just over 200 to more than 4,500.

The number of Iraq Police volunteering to serve in the city’s center, however, remains low.

“The tribes on the outskirts are coming along great,” said Lt. Col. Mike Silverman, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, the unit responsible for much of downtown Ramadi. “The problem we have in our area is there are no tribes.”

U.S. commanders are hoping to change the situation.

Troops under the command of the 1-3ID’s Col. John W. Charlton are battling to establish a foothold for Iraqi security forces within the city’s center. For more than a week now, troops have launched a series of coordinated operations aimed at breaking up enemy cells in the area and clearing dense city blocks of Islamist fighters.

The campaign, which one officer described as “a major knife fight,” aims to establish fortified Iraqi Police and Iraqi army stations within these troubled districts.

“Our goal is to litter that area with blue-shirted policemen,” said Lt. Col. Thad McWhorter, deputy commander of the 1-3ID.

Despite the fears of many residents, Jassim said that he has made some progress. The major said that in at least one case, a downtown resident agreed to share information on insurgent fighters through secretly delivered messages.

“I am trying to convince the people to stand up,” Jassim said. “But this will take time. Most importantly, we have to make the city secure.”

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