Monday, May 22, 2006

Tough days in Ramadi

Michael Ware has a must-read story in TIME this week that shows the bravery of American troops and the journalists that cover them. It also shows the bullshit from senior officers when they say they have enough troops. Some excerpts with one emphasized:
It's another sweltering afternoon in the most dangerous place in Iraq, and the men of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, are looking to pick a fight. First Lieut. Grier Jones splits his 30-odd-man platoon into two squads and sets them loose on the streets of Ramadi. They run block to block, covering one another as they sprint across intersections. Insurgents bob their heads out of homes to catch a glimpse of the Marines--"turkey peeking," as the troops call it--a sign that they are preparing to attack."We come out here every day, and we get shot at," Jones tells an Iraqi woman who speaks American-accented English. "Where are the bad guys?" She falls silent. Outside, a blue sedan peels away. "Watch that car," a Marine yells, sensing a possible ambush.

His instincts are right. At the next intersection, the Marines duck into a house. Suddenly a machine gun lets rip, spewing bullets around them. "Where's it coming from?" a Marine yells. Immediately, shooting opens up from a second direction. Jones gets his men to the roof to repel the two-sided attack. "Rocket!" screams a grunt, unleashing an AT4 rocket at one of the insurgent positions. Men reel from the blast's concussion. The shooting from the east stops. But as Jones peers over a cement wall to locate the second ambush position, a 7.62-mm round whizzes by. "Whoa, that went right over my head," he says, smiling. As the Marines on the roof fire at the insurgents, Jones orders a squad to push toward the enemy position. Then the enemy weapons go quiet; the insurgents are apparently withdrawing to conserve their energy. Jones radios back to his commanders. "We saw the enemy do a banana peel back, then peel north." He chuckles. "This is every day in Ramadi."


TIME spent a week with Kilo Company, the 120-person unit that goes head to head with the insurgents every day. The goal is to lure al-Qaeda into attacks, which Kilo Company has been doing successfully: in a single week, five men were wounded, three foot patrols were ambushed, and there were unrelenting attacks from small-arms fire and mortars. The experience of the Marines in Ramadi illuminates some of the shortcomings of the U.S. strategy for defeating the insurgency. The commander has only one brigade to secure the town, even though U.S. officers say privately that at least three are needed. Among the troops, frustration is growing: many officers say that the U.S. is too lenient in its dealings with the enemy, allowing too many captured insurgents to go free, and that soldiers can do little more than act as international police. Others claim that superiors are overlooking their reports about conditions on the ground. If the U.S. and its Iraqi allies are making progress in eroding the appeal of the resistance, the men in Ramadi don't see it. Says an American officer: "This s___ ain't going anywhere."


U.S. efforts to woo Iraqi groups were beginning to pay dividends, as the city's tribal and insurgent leaders gave their approval for young Sunnis to join the new police force. Recruitment mostly ran at about 40 a month, though in January, 1,000 showed up to join. But al-Qaeda responded by sending a chest-vest suicide bomber into the queue of applicants, killing about 40 Iraqis, wounding 80, and killing two Americans. When the recruits returned days later, al-Zarqawi followed up with a wave of seven assassinations of tribal sheiks. "That hurt us a lot," says Gronski.


So why does Ramadi remain beyond the U.S.'s control? Part of the problem, many officers say, is that the troops' authority to act is constrained by politics. Soldiers cannot lock up suspected insurgents without first getting an arrest warrant and a sworn statement from two witnesses. And those who are convicted often receive jail sentences that are shorter than a grunt's tour of Iraq. "We keep seeing guys we arrested coming back out, and things get worse again," says an intelligence officer.

The bigger problem, though, is one that few in the military command want to hear: there aren't enough troops to do the job. "There's a realization, as every military commander knows, that you cannot be strong everywhere," says Gronski of Ramadi. "In the outlying areas, we think in terms of an economy of force where we are willing to accept risk by not placing as many troops." But while Gronski says his fighting strength is "appropriate," other commanders bristle at the limitations. "I can't believe it each time the Secretary of Defense talks about reducing force," says a senior U.S. officer. War planners in Iraq say just getting a handle on Ramadi demands three times as many soldiers as are there now. Several U.S. commanders say they won't ask superiors for more troops or plan large-scale operations because doing so would expose problems in the U.S.'s strategy that no one wants to acknowledge. "It's what I call the Big Lie," a high-ranking U.S. commander told TIME.

To be fair, gains are being made in Ramadi with the Iraqi army, the police and the young provincial government. A brigade intelligence officer says that "we are not getting excited because this is a long process--though we are winning. The tide is turning." But for those in the midst of the battle, that can sometimes be hard to see. "No matter what they say about the rest of the country, it ain't like this place," says a battalion officer in the thick of the fight. "It's the worst place in the world."


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