RAMADI, Iraq -- At a checkpoint on the north bridge spanning the Euphrates River into this volatile Sunni Muslim city, an Iraqi platoon frisked a row of men and rummaged through their cars and trucks for explosives. The men scowled silently, making the soldiers uneasy.
"Of course they don't like us," said one of the soldiers, Anwar Abas, whose unit is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim. "They don't like people from the south, so when we search them, they make faces at us." Abas and his fellow soldiers were recruited from tribes in the cities of Najaf and Diwaniyah, both more than 100 miles to the south.
An Iraqi soldier frisks drivers after their vehicles had been stopped at a checkpoint on a bridge leading to Ramadi, a volatile city in the Sunni Triangle, west of Baghdad. Ramadi residents have protested the checkpoints.
(Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
Watching nearby, an out-of-work Ramadi policeman chafed at the sight of outside Iraqi forces. "Ramadi people need to be at the checkpoint," he said. "We need to control the city, not have someone from the south come do it."
But Ramadi has no functioning local security force. Fearful of or complicit with insurgents, it disbanded before last January's elections and now consists of a handful of traffic cops. As a result, hundreds of predominantly Shiite forces -- including ad-hoc militia groups such as the Defenders of Baghdad -- are flowing into Ramadi as part of the latest strategy by Iraq's central government and the U.S. military to stem insurgent violence here.
Outside troops have been dispatched to trouble spots throughout Iraq in a bid to keep a lid on violence in areas where insurgent death threats have rendered the local police ineffective. As a short-term counter-insurgency strategy, such forces have several advantages. First, they and their families are less subject to intimidation in the localities where they are sent. Also, as Iraqis, they are far more familiar with the territory and less likely to be viewed as occupiers than are U.S. troops.
Yet by pitting Iraqis from different religious sects, ethnic groups and tribes against each other, the strategy also aggravates the underlying fault lines of Iraqi society, heightening the prospect of civil strife, U.S. military analysts said.
In Ramadi, the influx of outside forces totals at least 1,500 troops in five battalions, including Public Order forces and irregular militias such as the 2nd Special Police Commandos and Defenders of Baghdad, according to U.S. military officials.
U.S. officers say the surge in such external forces is needed to counter the insurgency's immediate grip on Ramadi, the capital of restive Anbar province in the Sunni Triangle, 60 miles west of Baghdad. It is one of Iraq's most dangerous cities, rocked daily by explosions. The city of 400,000 has lacked a functioning local security force since last winter, when the police and Iraqi National Guard disbanded wholesale as insurgents blew up all but one of Ramadi's police stations, the mayor's office and other government buildings.
But U.S. commanders worry that the strategy of importing troops to keep the peace also carries the risk of inciting sectarian violence between the outside Shiite forces and the local Sunni population.
"You get a Shiite outsider shooting a local policeman, and with a big incident like that you can see the whole city rising up," said Capt. Bart Nagle, an intelligence officer with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Ramadi. "This is the new dynamic, the new stage. I don't expect a quiet summer."
Adding to the volatility in Ramadi is the parochial bent of the Iraqi militia arriving in the city, part of a nationwide phenomenon in which tribes, religious sects, and political parties are recruiting armed forces more loyal to their group than to the ideal of an impartial Iraqi military, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
"All these units came out of the woodwork after the elections" on Jan. 30, said Col. Edward Cardon, whose 3rd Infantry Division brigade is stationed in central Baghdad. "This is sort of a militia society." The militias include large guard forces several hundred strong formed by the main Kurdish and Shiite political parties, which U.S. troops are attempting to keep sequestered in their Baghdad compounds, Cardon said. Militias are technically outlawed in Iraq, and the U.S. military is pressuring them to join the Iraqi security forces.
Other groups that began as ad hoc militias include Defenders of the Green Zone and Defenders of Baghdad. The latter started as a band of former Shiite soldiers "in dishdashas and flip flops" before being absorbed into the Iraqi army and dispatched last month to Ramadi, a U.S. military official said. Perhaps reflecting their broader mission, the Defenders of Baghdad recently adopted a new name: Defenders of Rafadan, which means "two rivers" and is a historical name for Iraq.
Resistance to the outside forces is simmering inside Ramadi, including among some prominent Iraqi officials and segments of the public.
"There may be fighting between Ramadi people and these outside forces," warned Fassal Raikan Nijres Gaood, 59, over tea in his heavily fortified Ramadi office, which insurgents regularly target with mortars. Gaood served as temporary governor of Anbar province until this week.
Gaood, a wealthy Sunni sheik, wants a local solution: a large security force drawn from his 10,000-member tribe, the Al Bu Nimr, which means "The Tiger's Father."
Gaood said he had already mustered a 500-man tribal guard who use personal cars and weapons; he is lobbying the government in Baghdad for ammunition, vehicles and guns. "My tribe will tell me everything about the terrorists," he said, smoking a cigarette at an ornate desk embellished with gold tiger heads. "I have high trust in them because I know them like my sons."
Gaood complained that outside Iraqi forces abuse Ramadi residents by swearing at them and calling them terrorists. Unfamiliar with Ramadi's streets, U.S. and outside Iraqi forces "can't make Ramadi safe, even if they stay here 10 years," he said. "It will be easy for terrorists to kill them."
Indeed, although troops from outside Ramadi live on bases behind cement barricades and are less vulnerable to threats than troops raised locally would be, deadly insurgent attacks have crippled some of their units in recent weeks.
Ramadi's violent reputation has led some Iraqi commanders to call the city hell. Last month, a Public Order battalion from Baghdad had 200 men -- a third of its force -- desert when it was ordered to go to Ramadi, U.S. military officers say. The battalion's arrival was delayed while it recruited replacements.
A month ago, the 1st Special Police Commando Battalion "refused to function" after a suicide bomber exploded a vehicle at a checkpoint in eastern Ramadi, killing 11 of its members, said Maj. Steven Alexander, operations officer for the U.S. Army brigade that oversees Ramadi. "The commandos were an experienced and proven unit, and they were defeated," he said. A second commando battalion recently arrived to replace that unit, but with only 350 of its 700 members.
Ali Hashim, 33, a portly commando fresh from Baghdad, struggled to hoist himself over a wall as he joined U.S. soldiers on a door-to-door search of houses recently in a troubled neighborhood in the eastern part of Ramadi. Hashim, a Shiite, sees Ramadi as hostile territory. "It is a problem that we are Shiite. They think we are all spies," he said, adding that "a lot of Ramadi people are insurgents."
Sporting a red beret, another commando on the search, Khathan Abdul Wahid, chatted with residents and helped himself to the contents of their refrigerators. He said he felt unwelcome in Ramadi, where people "think we are spies, agents, and traitors to our country because we are working with the Americans."
Insurgents in Ramadi are attempting to inflame tensions between residents and external forces. In recent weeks, they have spread leaflets, graffiti and put up posters on 20th Street and near the stadium calling the outside forces "rapists," "Jews," and "dogs of the Americans," said U.S. and Iraqi military officials.
The campaign indicates the continuing influence of insurgents who have held sway in Ramadi in recent months, infiltrating local hospitals, robbing banks of millions of dollars in government funds and using threats to suppress voter turnout. Only about 600 to 700 residents here voted in January.
In February, U.S. troops launched a major sweep in the region and installed checkpoints on the main bridges and roads leading into Ramadi. While the number of attacks has fallen sharply since then, some Ramadi residents complain that an 8 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew and delays at checkpoints are hurting them financially by making them late to work and curtailing business. Fifty percent of Ramadi residents are unemployed, Gaood said.
In mid-April, about 500 residents marched to a checkpoint manned by commandos and U.S. soldiers on the city's eastern edge to protest their treatment at the hands of outside forces. Sheiks and lawyers asked U.S. military authorities for a removal of the checkpoints as well as the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Ramadi.
"There's no doubt that some people feel the commandos won't treat them right," said Maj. Greg Sierra, executive officer of the Army's 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, who spoke with the demonstrators. The protest was spurred in part by a few Shiite commandos who posted vengeful signs making statements such as " 'You crushed us before,' " Sierra said. "They were inciting religious rivalry."
Nagle, the Marine intelligence officer, said the longtime persecution of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds by the Sunni-dominated government of Saddam Hussein had created "a post-apartheid situation" in Ramadi. "If you have Shiite and Kurd guys getting a vengeance attitude on the streets," he said, "that will be a problem."