Ramadi Insurgents Flaunt Threat

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 2, 2005

BAGHDAD, Dec. 1 -- Armed fighters claiming allegiance to Abu Musab Zarqawi took to the streets of a western Iraqi provincial capital Thursday in a fleeting show aimed at intimidating Iraqi Sunni Arab leaders taking part in dialogue with U.S. Marines in a stronghold of the insurgency, provincial officials, residents and other witnesses said.

The scene -- lean figures, many in masks and dark tracksuits lugging shoulder-mounted rocket launchers or wielding AK-47 assault rifles -- reinforced what the U.S. military has acknowledged is the strong insurgent presence in the Euphrates River cities and towns of Anbar province, an overwhelmingly Sunni area near the Syrian border. The appearance of the fighters dismayed many of the residents of Ramadi, the war-blighted provincial capital.

"We are tired of the present situation," said Ahmed Hassan, a 24-year-old dentistry student at Anbar University. "The Zarqawi group has become like a worm inside our guts. We are scared of informing on them and cannot deter them or object to what they are doing. Their only language is that of killing and death, and we fear that."

The armed fighters on the streets left statements in the name of Zarqawi's group, saying their show of force was in response to negotiations between the "Sunni midgets and the stooges of the occupation forces." The statements contained pledges to kill each Sunni leader participating.

The U.S. military, which maintains Marine bases and thousands of troops on the outskirts of Ramadi, denied the accounts of unrest, saying that the city was largely calm Thursday and that insurgents were manipulating the news media. "Today I witnessed inaccurate reporting, use of unreliable sources, media using other media as sources, an active insurgent propaganda machine, and the pack journalism at its worse," Capt. Jeffrey Pool, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Division, said in an e-mail to news organizations.

Witnesses in Ramadi said they saw some of the armed fighters instruct a journalist for an Arabic-language news outlet to report that Zarqawi's group, al Qaeda in Iraq, had taken over the entire city. The Arabic outlet by late Thursday was reporting only that the fighters had held some streets of the city center -- a description of events in line with the eyewitness accounts and reports from other news organizations. News directors for the organization did not respond to requests for comment. The news organization is not being identified for security reasons.

In Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, denied at a news conference what he called the "spurious reports" coming out of Ramadi.

"The idea that there's this mass uprising and the insurgents took control of the city is incorrect," Lynch said. "When I hear reports about how the insurgents have taken over the town and I call the commander on the ground and he says I have no idea what you're talking about . . . ."

Numerous provincial officials, residents and witnesses in Ramadi separately reported the appearance of the armed men, however. Witnesses said they saw dozens of the fighters in the streets of the city center after about 7 a.m., and saw at least one impromptu checkpoint in which roughly 10 fighters were checking the identities of each driver.

Fighters at one roadblock abducted and later killed a city official, Mohammed Khalef, a transportation official for Ramadi, said Khalid Qaraghouli, a spokesman for the Anbar provincial government.

Mohammed Hamed, an Anbar government official, said the show of strength included "more than 200 armed men, including Arab fighters."

"There were no American Marines or government troops or policemen," Hamed said. "The insurgents were in a show of strength reminiscent of the power displays of the Saddam regime."

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