War of attrition in Iraq’s insurgent heartland

RAMADI — Crouched around the camera’s high-tech screen, the US Marines watch flames burn the camouflage netting around one of their lookout posts on a nearby roof, just hit by a burst of machinegun fire.

As the camera in the troops’ command position sweeps the area around the post 500 metres  away, all that can be seen are mothers taking children to school.

The insurgents have vanished, having poured around 400 heavy machinegun bullets into the rooftop lookout, piercing the protective ballistic glass and wounding the soldier on duty.

Only two hours earlier the same Marines had been congratulating themselves on spotting a group of insurgents burying a roadside bomb, now all wiped out in an aerial strike the troops called up.

Here in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province and heartland of the Sunni insurrection in Iraq, a war of attrition is taking place.

Faced with daily harassment by insurgents in this city 100 kilometres west of Baghdad, the Marines are steadily setting up advance posts as they move cautiously towards the zones most occupied by their Sunni attackers.

“The battalion is moving east, where the danger comes from.

Building observation posts deny freedom of movement for the enemy,” said Captain Kyle Sloan, Alpha company commander.

Sloan says the Marines are carrying out more daytime patrols while the Iraqi police were now able to operate independently.

The Marines company command headquarters in Ramadi, a four-storey building, also shelters some 50 Iraqi police and around 30 soldiers from the Iraqi army.

“When they told me I have to go to Ramadi, I told myself ‘this is not good’, but now I believe it is better here than in Baghdad”, said Alaa Mohammed, one of the Iraqi soldiers.

To one side of the post, a school has reopened, and Marines say that more people are daring to venture out into the streets and that their attitude towards the Americans has changed for the better.

“Every squad has a favourite family. When on patrol, they are making a point of going to the house, see if they need anything, give stuff to the kids,” said Corporal Joshua Barrett.

It’s not a strategy that endears the US troops to everyone in Ramadi. During a night patrol to secure buildings around a new advance post, Lieutenant Michael Steinpfad asked local residents: “Why do you let the insurgents live with you?” One young man, a local Sunni, speaking in English, challenged the US view.

“The insurgents treat us badly and the Americans treat us badly too. We are afraid the Americans came to steal the oil and fortunes of Iraq. Saddam Hussein gave Iraq an important thing, security,” he said.

Illustrating the division tearing the country apart, an angry Shiite interpreter from southern Iraq working with the US military, retorted: “Do you think Saddam didn’t steal Iraqi fortunes? Why don’t you cooperate? “Under his regime, it was a fake security, he was killing people. The same terrorists that are killing people now were already killing people then,” said the interpreter.

Perhaps fearing he had gone too far, the young Sunni remained quiet.

In a neighbouring house, behind a tiny garden home to three goats, residents watch an American film with Al Pacino. As the Marines moved in, a young woman tried to hide her face from male gazes using her hands and veil.

The soldiers found a small portable stereo including one of the famous songs, backed by the sound of Kalashnikov assault rifle fire, about the “Lions of Fallujah”, the former rebel stronghold some 60 kilometres from Ramadi which was only taken after a fierce and bloody assault.

The song calls for Iraqis to “strike the occupier”.

“I know you have been threatened by the insurgents, but if you want the insurgents to leave the place, we need your help,” Lance-corporal William Bailey said, asking the family if they want their children to grow up amid gunfire and bombs.

The night patrol seized three people on its list of wanted men, including a podgy youngster who said he was 18 and was suspected as serving as a scout for insurgents.

Blindfolded and his hands tied, he denounced one of his neighbours where he said masked men had just met.

On one roof in the city, a 24-year-old Iraqi policeman — with handcuffs attached to his bulletproof vest — did lookout duty alongside a Marine.

“When I joined the IP (Iraqi police) seven years ago, the situation was good for policemen. Now, I have already been wounded three times, but I”m not scared, I’m ready to go home with my uniform,” said Ali Harbi.

Meanwhile, the violence continues, with Iraqi civilians the main victims.

A 14-year-old boy, his face lacerated around his right eye, said: “I was with my uncle in a truck loaded with sheep when a suicide car bomb exploded. I’m happy to see through my wounded eye again. I want to be a doctor.” Near to him, another child whose right leg has been amputated below the knee, looked sadly at a football he will never be able to kick.

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