Troops leaving Ramadi see fruits of their work
RAMADI, Iraq — After eight long months of heated, block-to-block combat in one of Iraq’s deadliest cities, U.S. troops have broken a years-long stalemate between coalition forces, local insurgents and Islamic militants, according to the departing coalition commander.
Citing a counterinsurgency strategy borrowed from the battle for Tal Afar — as well as a breakdown of alliances between former Saddam regime Baathists and al-Qaida in Iraq fighters — Col. Sean MacFarland said his troops made “phenomenal” progress in the battle for Ramadi.
“We’ve gone from a stalemate to a clear movement toward ultimate success,” said MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, based in Friedberg, Germany.
The signs of progress include the appointment of a mayor; the creation from scratch of a 4,500-strong Iraqi police force; a 50 percent drop in mortar, rocket and roadside bomb attacks; and, perhaps most significant, a complete reversal of relations between U.S. troops and local tribes.
Initially, the brigade counted two local tribes that were friendly toward the unit and a dozen who were openly hostile and supportive of the insurgency. Today, those numbers are reversed.
“The key indicator is really the shift in tribal dynamics,” MacFarland said. “Ultimately, the tribes have come aboard our side.”
Now, as the 1st AD prepares to transfer authority for Ramadi on Sunday to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, key strategies are being adapted to what may well be the decisive battle for Baghdad.
While the two fights are very different — troops in Ramadi battle Sunni militants who want the U.S. to leave Iraq, while troops in Baghdad are hoping to quell a bloody sectarian war — the overall strategies are very similar.
In Ramadi, troops created a network of combat outposts in the city’s most violent neighborhoods, seizing buildings, fortifying them and launching regular patrols. Iraqi army and police bases were established either inside or adjacent to the outposts.
Prior units were forced to operate primarily from Camp Ramadi and other large bases, and focused on containing insurgents to certain areas of the city, rather than seeking to kill or capture them in areas they controlled.
When 1st AD troops arrived in Ramadi, roughly two-thirds of the city was controlled by insurgents, particularly the south-central portion. It was a phenomenon veteran infantry commanders found almost unimaginable.
and attacked a new police station with an incendiary car bomb.
While assassinations and car bombings were nothing new in Ramadi, what was new was that the al-Qaida fighters had hidden the murdered sheik’s body for four days, preventing his family from burying him within 24 hours, a custom in the region. This act, officers said, appalled the tribes and turned sentiments against the Islamists.
“It sent the whole area into an uproar,” said Maj. Eric Remoy, the brigade’s intelligence officer. “That’s when they started to stand together against al-Qaida.”
At the time, U.S. officers did not fully recognize the significance of these events. They were stunned when a majority of the tribes banded together and drew up an 11-point plan committing them to helping build Ramadi’s police and denying support to the militant Islamists.
“That was an absolute touchdown,” Remoy said. “From there it started to spread.”
Prior to that, Ramadi had been what Remoy calls a “three-dog fight” between U.S. troops, tribes and Islamists. Now, the dynamic had turned to one of U.S. troops and tribes against the Islamists.
This alliance was reinforced in late November, when a sheikh called a brigade officer and said he was under attack by 50 Islamists. U.S. troops answered the call, saving the life of the sheikh and many tribe members. That battle, officers say, demonstrated the support locals could get.
To be sure, fighting continues in Ramadi. Earlier this week a police colonel was killed by a car bomb, and small-arms and mortar attacks have increased as 3rd ID troops rotate into the area.
But officers say they have gained the upper hand and are able to focus on bringing water and electrical services to devastated areas of the city and begin work on economic projects.
For those 1st AD soldiers who spent much of their tours in Ramadi battling insurgents in mortar-pocked combat outposts, the gains of the last eight months may not be easy to see, MacFarland said. But, he said, the trends in the city are unmistakable.
“We put this information into a paper that went out to all the soldiers, so that when they’re talking about their buddies who were killed or wounded, they can also talk about what they accomplished,” MacFarland said.
“In Tal Afar, Ramadi and Hit, the Ready First helped liberate a million Iraqis. They killed or captured more enemy fighters than [the number of] Americans killed in 9/11. They made a significant impact in the war on terror.”