Ramadi in Real-Time
CPT Tom Hanlon, US Army
22 April, 2007
I'm an Army Infantry Captain assigned to Task Force 1-9 Infantry "Manchus." My political affiliation is neutral depending on what issue you want to talk about. Like many other entitled Americans, I'm opinionated and have my share of convictions though not publicly expressed in accordance with the stewardship of maintaining my duties as a professional officer. This war we're waging in Iraq, like all wars, is wrought with triumph and tragedy. Correspondents tend to home on the latter. Like most of us over here I'm irritated and disappointed that public opinion is largely a product of inaccurate or incomplete media reporting. Twenty years from now, if you interviewed a random American about what they remembered from the American involvement in Iraq, sadly they would probably rattle out bits about devastating suicide attacks, Abu Ghurab, Haditha and such. This is shamefully unfair to the servicemen who's selfless acts and sacrificial efforts put forth here are producing remarkable results that aren't widely lauded in the public eye. So, for those interested more in reality and less in spectacularism, I thought I would take a few minutes to report the brighter side of the news in Iraq (yes, there is one); specifically Ramadi, the same Ramadi recently infested with the likes of Al Qaeda of Iraq and a host of similar extremist groups. I feel a strong sense of obligation to our Soldiers to communicate some results of their historical efforts here that might otherwise go tragically unnoticed by so many. I hope this letter proliferates through cyberspace and traverses desktops of unfamiliar faces.
This Task Force is all too familiar with East Ramadi as it was here for it's previous deployment on this very same small dusty footprint known as 'Camp Corregidor' which this unit established and named while under a different Battalion Flag. Many of the returning veterans are using the same furniture they had here the first time, fabricated from 2 x 4s and plywood that still bear the same initials etched in from Christmas of 2004. I'm not sure if any other unit has returned to Iraq for a subsequent deployment to the exact same sector. Corregidor is not high on the list of places to come back to but in a strange way it has become a bit of a special place for many men here. Most of us are actually more content not to be part of the larger military base atmosphere complete with the niceties of Post Exchanges, commercial eateries, recreation centers, and coffee shops found elsewhere. Our roads on camp are not even graveled. They are paths of moon dust ground up by three years of 70-ton Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles in constant mission cycles. When it rains, the dust turns to silt mud halting HUMVEEs in place. These austere conditions add to the expeditionary feel that only the adventurous seek and embrace.
I am the Commander of a Headquarters Company. In combat, my position becomes sort of a Wild Card. Battalion Commanders use their HQ Commanders for a myriad of different things. In this particular battalion, I'm assigned as the coordinator of Iraqi Police Forces in eastern Ar Ramadi, the all Sunni capital of the nearly all Sunni Anbar Province. My mission is to ensure these fledgling forces are trained, equipped, paid, and operate free of corruption while keeping the ranks free of insurgent infiltrators. Police Forces in Iraq have been heavily infiltrated by insurgents in the past and a former Police Program in this area was completely disbanded leaving behind a vacuum of civil order in this capital city of Ramadi, allowing the insurgents to operate freely. The area became the dark heart of the Sunni Insurgency and an intended Caliphate for the Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI) network whose aim is to convert this region to an Islamic Fundamentalist state. We're here to prevent that. No one wants a tank parked at the end of the street. They want a Police Car patrolling with professional policemen at the helm. That is normalcy.
October 2006: Upon arrival in Eastern Ramadi in October of 2006, the situation on the ground was pretty clear: the city was mostly controlled by a Sunni Insurgency, consisting of AQI but also other Sunni extremist factions. Our austere positions were shelled almost daily with mortars just as they had been for at least the previous two years. American casualties were inflicted at an alarmingly higher rate in this city than anywhere else in country. An insurgency can be likened to cancer, once it hits the bloodstream, hope begins to fade. In this case, the blood is the people. Key infrastructures such as schools, gas stations, power generation sites become the vital organs. The cancer cells invade the organs and metastasize. For those who try to compete against them with alternatives, they are often kidnapped and beheaded with their bodies paraded as a warning. The fear and intimidation campaign begins to control a people who have no options for security and must concede to complaisance. The alternatives are not desirable. The insurgents are masterful at manipulation of information operations, both misinformation and anti-information. They control all forms of media into the homes by way of radio waves, satellite shots, and cyber pipes. The people will only hear what the insurgents allow them to hear. For example, a carefully planned and executed precision air strike that actually killed 10 Al Qaeda planners is quickly spun into a careless act of American barbarism killing a family with six children. Hatred is brewed, harnessed, redirected and thus the cancer enters the blood stream. And that's where we stood in Ramadi in October of 2006.
Anbar Awakening: A string of events and successful partnered military operations led to recent drastic changes. Citizens of Ramadi are strongly affiliated with tribes, especially in the periphery of the city. There are at least 20 tribes and sub tribes in our Battalion sector alone. Tribes are communities within communities that have strong emphasis on family values and security. They are led by a sheik. Some of these sheiks have a great deal of power and influence. Over here they call it 'wasta' - a well known Arabic term often borrowed by American forces in Iraq. Sheik Sittar is the 'Sheik of Sheiks' in Ramadi. If sheiks were Jedis, he would be Yoda. Sheik Sittar is situated on the western side of Ramadi and he had come to see the realities of what an Al Qaeda-controlled Anbar would mean for the future - grim and without basic freedoms. Just before our arrival, Sittar pledged his allegiance to the Americans and New Iraqi Army. He embarked on a dangerous campaign to influence other tribal sheiks to get on board this quest. This endeavor was not readily accepted by most sheiks, particularly those on our eastern side of the city and that's why tanks are kept parked at his house 24/7. East Ramadi insurgents continued to shell American and Iraqi Army (IA) positions and attacked our patrols with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), small arms fire, ambushes, and daily sniper attacks. Our Task Force sustained up to 20 attacks per day as the norm. We spilled a lot of blood in this city in our first six months losing 14 members of our Task Force to enemy action and sustaining over 100 wounded. Our IA partners have paid an equally high price.
But Al Qaeda extremists committed a tactical blunder in our area ultimately leading to their rapid demise in Ramadi. In late November 2006, they attacked a local tribe committing horrific atrocities on its members to demonstrate the consequences of contesting their influence. The tribal leader made a 9-1-1 call to our Battalion on a satellite phone previously provided to them should they ever need our help. Our Task Force quickly turned our flying cameras onto the scene and witnessed the atrocities in real time. Members of our Tactical Operations Center watched bodies being dragged behind vehicles on the display monitors. In rapid order, air support was rallied on station and 500lb precision bombs quickly halted the massacres. A company of our Soldiers were subsequently dispatched to the scene by helicopter lift. They decisively removed the attackers and provided security and support to the victim tribe. The support consisted of humanitarian aid, weapons, training and a permanent presence of US and Iraqi Soldiers to live in their neighborhood. In return we asked them to start a neighborhood watch force that we would help morph into a professional paid police force. Neighboring tribes watched this transformation happen and the influence spread rapidly through our area where alliances formed one tribe after another. The enemy of our enemy became our friend and we all shared a similar agenda. It is no different than playing a board game with multiple opponents such as Risk and Monopoly. Quietly or overtly, alliances are formed in the interest of a shared agenda and the greater, more dangerous threat is suffocated. The cancer cells can not further metastasize and thus remission begins.
Concurrently, this Task Force conducted continuous and unrelenting sweeping battalion offensives against the insurgent strongholds throughout the different regions of our eastern Ramadi battle space. For every offensive, our Soldiers did not simply march across the urban battlefields from one side to the other 'high-fiving' each other in the end zone on the far side in triumph leaving behind a wake of dead bodies. It's much more difficult than that. The hard stuff is making every effort to win the hearts and minds of the very people whose homes we occupy often against the wills of the anxious hosts, a people whose cultural traits are so vastly different than our own. And we must do this with utmost professionalism, politeness, and awareness. We're demanding this from our young men, some of which are still teenagers knowing one excited nervous instinct of self defense could undermine the overall mission of winning the people. We ask them to do this right after a harrowing firefight moments prior. These successive delicate operations quickly migrated from remote rural villages to dense city streets over the past several months. Every major operation led to the capturing, killing, and displacing of insurgent networks. Each operation was followed up with a stay-behind contingent of American and Iraqi forces to begin the hard work of restorative civil efforts and to develop the critical human intelligence networks - treasure chests leading to the extrication of the insurgents who fade back into society waiting for the next opportunity to strike.
Current Situation: After only six months, and with the last of the insurgent strongholds cleared, Ramadi is now entering into a major transformational phase. The daily sound of menacing machine gun fire and the all-too-often room-shaking 'WHKOOM" sound of another IED exploding have fallen silent for now. While still in the embryonic stages of this current phase, the task now is to restore the infrastructure and governance. We are raising armies of police. We have gone from zero to over 1500 policemen in our side of the city alone. Our IA partners are growing stronger and more competent by the day though there is still much we can help them improve upon. We facilitated three separate elected councils in just the past few weeks. Local national contractors, NOT outside war-time profiteers, have begun to return to East Ramadi for labor opportunities whereas before, none would dare venture in for a buck knowing execution by the hands of the insurgents would quickly follow. Additionally, massive clean up efforts have begun which is no small task. The main drag through the city center looks like 1940s Stalingrad with palm trees. Every building is a twisted mess of concrete and rebar or completely rubbled altogether. You can not find one structure along Route Michigan that's been spared from explosive blast effects, rockets, or machine gun fire. As of this week, the local citizens are cleaning it up - with one wheelbarrow full of rubble and debris at a time.
None of this has been easy or without high cost and sacrifice. The success of this Task Force is attributed to the vision and commitment of the total force. The key is knowing what, where, and when; and knowing when not to. The Task Force has taken the utmost care in mitigating the risks of losing our own fighters and Iraqi fighters. Though we've sadly lost our share, many lives have been saved throughout the deployment by a rapidly growing base of combat experience and knowledge of our local enemy and his tactics, techniques, and procedures. I can only imagine how frustrated he's been as we've remained strides ahead of him throughout this fight. Now we wait for the central government to shape and to recognize the efforts of Al Anbar and its people.
I know that you will log on tomorrow and read the headlines about a catastrophic suicide attack wiping out a crowded market in Baghdad. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. In my military experiences overseas the media has never, NEVER, reported accurately. Their mission is to get the story out before the competition or a deadline, often forgoing the time consuming fact gathering part. I'm sure there was a bomb, I'm sure there was death and tragedy. But somewhere an elementary school just opened in a neighborhood previously oppressed by insurgents for three years or a new station with more than enough local volunteers just stood up. The doom and gloom is what sells in a world fixated on drama. Ramadi has received some media attention recently. In March, Brian Williams reported from Ramadi on the sweeping changes taking place here - change that is showing measurable signs of stability. Shortly thereafter, over a burger at a picnic I had the opportunity to speak with some Congressional Representatives who were traveling through our area to gain atmospherics. They were somewhat surprised to hear about the recent success indicating to me that the gospel is still not fully out yet. Recently, Senator McCain accused the media of not portraying the whole story to the American Public. While visiting Baghdad, he ventured outside the wire to demonstrate the increased security to the public. Critics widely chastised the Senator with sharp editorial comments quick to point out the extensive security efforts that swarmed around him enabling him to pull off this 'stunt' work. Now of course, we're going to go the extra mile to protect our key leaders such as an elected official or commander of all forces in Iraq, General Petreaus when they exercise their dynamic leadership traits and demand an eyelevel look at the war zone. It'd be reckless not to. But I walk out in the streets of Ramadi, our Soldiers and Marines walk out there, our IA walk out there without the benefit of helicopter gunships orbiting overhead and tanks securing every corner. We don't have the media with us when we go out. But we can now shop and talk to Iraqi storekeepers who can now run a store whereas only a short time ago the scene was more holocaustic - like a scene taken from the movie Resident Evil. A very short time ago, Americans were killed and wounded here at the highest rate in the country.
Recently after one of our final offensive operations in the city, an audacious and desperate insurgent IED team ventured out in the street attempting to emplace a subsurface IED to attack the next military vehicle. The local people witnessing this action physically jumped this team, beat the hell out of them and handed them over in a citizen's arrest. Three months ago, they would have watched from their window making sure their children were safe inside and instructed not to play in that part of the street. Sadly, they were forced into this involuntary role of passive support for the insurgents where they know but dare not say. They've grown tired over the years. Their young children, who seem to abound here, know no other way of life and they're ready to move forward with a better place to raise a family. They're no different than us in that simple want.
In Closing: Truly, the Ramadi transformation is something to behold. Progress is being made rapidly. So is history. When assessing this city six months ago, it would have made a naysayer of the most optimistic man. It's been a carefully planned and executed campaign of counterinsurgency, a type of warfare that incorporates the heavy hand of tanks, attack helicopters, fighter jets, ground forces, and solid leadership with a delicate balance of civil military effort and extreme precision to combat insurgents and protect the populace, convince the populace, and foster the populace as they rebuild their city. The people are the prize. A high insurgent body count means nothing in the end. In fact, many of our Iraqi Policemen and local storekeepers are the very men who fought against us less than a year ago. Many of them were active members of IED emplacing cells and have American blood on their hands. This is known. Through successful counterinsurgency efforts, they now fight with us and support us. They turned over their hidden munitions depots to us. We never could have killed them all, probably not enough bullets. Until our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan it can be argued that the United States has never truly engaged in this type of counterinsurgency in such a mass and sustained effort as this. We are a conventional force fighting unconventional warfare normally associated with small teams of Special Forces who quietly employ it throughout the world setting the conditions for American foreign policy. This unconventional thinking man's fight is costly and protracted but necessary for beating this cancer into remission and protecting a nation from imploding - a reality that most certainly would have detrimental affects the world over. Al Qaeda and similar extremist entities would flourish and Iran's powers would surely grow to more dangerous levels. One of the world's largest energy producers would fall into the hands of a terrorist state financing their strength, operations, and further proliferation
You should know that this is not all in vain and things are not always as they seem. Through the ugliness, there is hope here, at least as I see it from my window view of Ramadi. Like Robert Duvall playing the role of Air Cav Commander LTC Kilgore said in Apocalypse Now, "Some day this war's gonna end." When it does, Iraq will surely have a chance to be better off than it was under Saddam. It may not be at that level by the time of our eventual egress but we are setting the conditions everyday for it to ascend to that goal on its own. One day long after we've left this country, and hopefully not from the roof top of the embassy, we may be able to call this effort a victory. It would be an ill-defined victory and we have to accept that. We'll recognize it by the spirit of a people who make a stand against ruthless extremists. It will rest on the shoulders of the Iraqis who are learning everyday what it means to fight for freedom.