“A few weeks ago you couldn’t drive down this street without being attacked. When I went down this street in February, I was hit three times with small-arms fire and IEDs.” Col. John Charlton was describing Ramadi as we drove down its heavily damaged main street, dubbed Route Michigan by U.S. forces. Even though this was an unlucky day—Friday the 13th (of April)—we did not experience a single attack on our convoy of Humvees.
The previous week, a suicide bomber drove a truck filled with explosives and chlorine gas into a police checkpoint, killing 12 people (not the 27 or more cited in most news accounts). But such violence, once the norm, has become the exception. Ramadi, which used to see 20 to 25 attacks a day, now sees an average of two to four a day. By the time I visited, no U.S. soldier had been killed in the town for weeks.
That remarkable success is worth pondering at a time when most Americans are willing to write off Iraq as a lost cause. There is no doubt that U.S. forces face an agonizingly difficult task in Iraq. The bombings that killed nearly 200 people in Baghdad last week make clear how hard the challenge is. But as Gen. David Petraeus said on taking command in February, “Hard is not hopeless.” The experience of Ramadi—which has gone from being one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq to one of the safest—provides a glimmer of hope.
The situation began to change for the better last year when the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division expanded the U.S. troop presence near Al Qaeda strongholds on the west side of town, losing almost 90 soldiers in the process. Then the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, which took over the city earlier this year, extended the offensive. From mid-February to the end of March, about 2,000 soldiers and Marines, along with their Iraqi allies, fought to control the city.
Each offensive began with troops staging raids into the targeted area to eliminate “high-value individuals”—local Al Qaeda leaders. Then the troops placed 3-foot-high concrete barriers around the neighborhood to prevent insurgents from “squirting out.” This was followed by a clearing operation to root out the enemy. Combat was intense, with insurgents fighting back with homemade bombs, AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns. Ten American soldiers were killed and 40 were wounded.
“The price was heavy but worth it,” said Charlton, the burly commander of the 1st Brigade who directed the operations. “The enemy lost massively.” To illustrate the point, he showed me a page of closely printed type listing all the arms caches seized by his men: 10,250 pounds of homemade explosives, 2,347 pounds of high explosives, 2,265 feet of detonation cord, 6,000 gallons of chlorine.
The scars of the battle—and those that preceded it over the last four years—are clearly visible on Route Michigan, which resembles pictures of Berlin in 1945. Buildings are destroyed or badly damaged. Piles of rubble are everywhere. Water sits in the streets; the water mains were broken by countless subsurface explosions from buried improvised explosive devices.
In the past, U.S. troops would follow up a successful offensive by retreating to their “remote forwarding operating bases,” and insurgents would slink back into the areas just liberated at a heavy price. To keep that from happening, U.S. troops have established four bases in Ramadi, along with more than 40 joint security stations and observation posts, where they work alongside Iraqi soldiers and police. There also are 23 police stations in the city and surrounding area. The mini-forts are within eyeball range of one another and are supported by surveillance cameras on 100-foot poles. U.S. and Iraqi forces have spun such a tight web in town that insurgents are having a hard time crawling back in.
Having completed clearing operations, the American forces are now in the “build” phase of their campaign, trying to repair the damage and win over the populace. This is, in many ways, the hardest part because it requires money that is not readily forthcoming. Charlton can tap already allocated U.S. funding to pay for $4.4 million worth of projects, but he estimates the entire cost of cleanup will be at least $10 million. He is hoping that someone—perhaps the U.S. Agency for International Development—will foot the rest of the bill. Ideally, the cost should be borne by the government of Iraq, but, through lack of capacity or lack of willingness, the Shiite-dominated government is not at the moment sending much money to Sunni-dominated Al Anbar province.
Yet for all the shortcomings of their government, Iraqi forces have begun to participate effectively in coalition operations, and nowhere more so than in Ramadi. Key to the success of this undertaking has been the recent decision by most of the major Al Anbar tribes to turn against Al Qaeda and its indiscriminate reign of terror. The Sunni tribal forces are still too weak to defeat Al Qaeda on their own and probably always will be, but they have been of critical help in generating tips that aid coalition forces. They are also now encouraging their sons to join the Iraqi police and army.
Among police and army, I saw encouraging signs of integration across sectarian boundaries. For example, an Iraqi army sergeant-major, a Shiite from Baghdad, was in charge of supervising the rebuilding of a Sunni neighborhood. This kind of inter-communal cooperation was once the norm in Iraq and could be again, if Shiite and Sunni extremists are defeated at gunpoint.
Ramadi is not an isolated example. There is progress across Al Anbar province. According to coalition briefings, attacks in the province are at a two-year low. Tips to coalition forces are soaring. U.S. troops used to find only 50% of IEDs. Now they are defusing 80% before they detonate. (Al Qaeda in Iraq has responded with chlorine gas bombs. In other words, using chemical weapons against Sunni civilians—not a tactic likely to win over the populace.)
The question is whether this success can be replicated in Iraq’s nerve center. The challenges in Baghdad are considerably more daunting because of its size (6 million residents versus 1.5 million in all of Al Anbar province) and its sectarian fault lines. And, even when the surge is completed in June, Baghdad will not have as many troops on a per capita basis as Ramadi.
But given enough time and resources, the “clear, hold and build” strategy that worked in Ramadi—and that has worked in Tall Afar, Qaim and other cities—could succeed in Baghdad too. Unless, of course, antiwar politicians back home succeed in pulling the plug, in which case defeat is guaranteed.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.