By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
BAGHDAD, May 29 -- The U.S. military said Monday it was deploying the main reserve fighting force for Iraq, a full 3,500-member armored brigade, as emergency reinforcements for the embattled western province of Anbar, where a surge of violence linked to the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq has severely damaged efforts to turn Sunni Arab tribal leaders against the insurgency.
The insurgents have assassinated 11 tribal leaders in the Ramadi area since the end of last year, when Sunni sheiks in the city began open cooperation with the U.S. military. That alliance was heralded by U.S. commanders as a sign of a major split between Sunni insurgents and the larger Sunni community of western Iraq.
The insurgent attacks since then have all but frozen the cooperation between Sunni tribal leaders and U.S. forces in Ramadi, local leaders say.
Disclosure of the plan came on a day when insurgent bombings and other attacks killed more than 40 people around the country, including two members of a CBS News team. The team's correspondent, Iraq veteran Kimberly Dozier, was wounded and listed in critical condition. [Details, A9.]
Last week, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad conceded, in answer to a question about Ramadi in an interview with CNN, that parts of Anbar were under insurgent control. Ramadi is the capital of the overwhelmingly Sunni province. The difficulties facing stretched-thin U.S. Marines in Ramadi suggest the continuing obstacles to a reduction of American forces in Iraq.
"We hope to get rid of al-Qaeda, which is a huge burden on the city. Unfortunately, Zarqawi's fist is stronger than the Americans'," said one Sunni sheik, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of insurgent retaliation. He was referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, an umbrella group for many of the foreign and local resistance fighters in Iraq. Local Sunni leaders often insist that the most violent insurgent attacks are by foreign fighters, not Iraqi Sunnis.
In Ramadi, "Zarqawi is the one who is in control," the sheik said, speaking to a Washington Post special correspondent in Ramadi. "He kills anyone who goes in and out of the U.S. base. We have stopped meetings with the Americans, because, frankly speaking, we have lost confidence in the U.S. side, as they can't protect us."
Another sheik, Bashir Abdul Qadir al-Kubaisi of the Kubaisat tribe in Ramadi, expressed similar views. "Today, there is no tribal sheik or a citizen who dares to go to the city hall or the U.S. base, because Zarqawi issued a statement ordering his men to kill anyone seen leaving the base or city hall," he said.
"We are very upset. But being upset is better than mourning the death of a sheik or tribal leader," Kubaisi said. "Zarqawi has imposed himself on us. We started thinking of appeasing Zarqawi and his group, because rejecting them means death."
Gen. George W. Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has called up the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the main standby reserve force for the roughly 130,000 American troops in Iraq, Maj. Todd Breasseale, a Marine spokesman in Baghdad, confirmed.
The call-up leaves a Marine Expeditionary Unit, which typically includes one combat infantry battalion and air and logistical support, in Kuwait as the only American reserve in the Iraqi theater, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said.
CNN reported last week that as many as two of the brigade's three battalions were headed to Ramadi. U.S. military officials would not comment then, citing security of any ongoing troop movements.
Breasseale confirmed Monday that the full armored brigade is headed to Anbar, where both U.S. Marines and many local tribal leaders -- particularly in Ramadi -- have appealed for more U.S. troops.
"Enough is never enough" when it comes to commanders on the ground wanting more troops, Breasseale said. "It might be when these guys get into position they might be in a better position to provide the force structure on the ground that would reenergize the sheiks to begin their work."
Although Anbar province is heavily Sunni, many local residents have grown weary of the presence of the foreign fighters who joined the Sunni insurgents. They have tired of the violent control the fighter groups wield over cities and towns, and of the U.S. attacks the insurgents draw.
Scores of local Sunni tribal leaders turned out for a groundbreaking meeting with U.S. Marine officers in Ramadi in November. Robed sheiks and Marine officers in camouflage faced each other in a town hall, ignoring mortar rounds that insurgents lobbed at the meeting, to start talking about the first major, open cooperation between Ramadi's sheiks and U.S. forces.
But when U.S. and Iraqi forces held the first local recruiting drive for local Sunni young men in January, bombs killed more than 60 of the Sunni tribal enlistees and others. The local residents said the bombs were set by Zarqawi's group.
The assassinations of the tribal leaders then mounted, in what was seen as a clear warning to them not to cooperate with U.S. forces. Violence surged in Ramadi in April and May. In many weeks, Marines in Ramadi have accounted for one-third to half of all American combat deaths in Iraq. U.S. forces say scores of insurgents have been killed in the same period; no full tally of the civilian toll is known.
U.S. forces have called in repeated strikes by air and by artillery on the heart of Ramadi. Marines defend a five-block area of downtown that holds the local government, now a sniper's alley where U.S. forces move at a run to elude insurgent guns.
Marines have temporarily suspended new embedding of journalists in Ramadi. Time magazine, U.S. News & World Report and the Associated Press, all with embedded reporters already in Ramadi last week, quoted both officers and the enlisted Marines at sandbag firing positions as saying that Ramadi had to have reinforcements to do more than fight insurgents to a draw around the town hall. Time quoted officers as estimating it would take three brigades, up from one.
Marine officers on the ground have been open for more than a year now about needing more troops in Anbar, whose Sunni population, remoteness and comparative lawlessness have made it a stronghold for the insurgency. Anbar borders Syria, a conduit for some of the weapons, money and fighters.
In Ramadi, people describe themselves as under siege. The fighters are moving to enforce the strictest form of Islam on the city, requiring head scarves for women and banning shorts and jeans for men, residents said.
Insurgent groups, calling themselves "Promoting Virtue and Banning Vice" regiments, have threatened households that have Internet service and warned that they will monitor rooftops for satellite dishes turned toward European satellites, said Imad Mohammed, a resident.
"Is it possible that the U.S. Marines are able to control only the government buildings, while al-Qaeda is walking freely in the streets and in the buildings with no one to deter it?" Mohammed asked. "Until the Arab fighters start to interfere with the daily, smallest and personal details of our lives?"
Residents say basic services have fallen, with electricity, water and schooling interrupted and the university closed for long periods. The imported Shiite police force, they say, has collapsed, and many doctors, professors and other professionals are fleeing.
"The city has gone back to the 14th century, if not further," said Akram Fadhil, a 40-year-old man with seven children and no job.
Rumors routinely circulate of a Fallujah-style clearing operation in Ramadi. Residents say they both hope for it and fear it. The November 2004 operation in Fallujah, a largely Sunni Arab city about 35 miles west of Baghdad, involved a major deployment of troops and sometimes intense fighting with insurgents.
"The city has become an unburnable hell," said Abdul Salam Ahmed al-Rawi, owner of a now-shuttered ice cream shop in Ramadi.
"We hope this will end soon, and that Americans will clean the city," Rawi said early last week. "But first they have to change the troops here now, and bring in more, better troops, just like a year and a half ago in Fallujah."
"For I expect if these troops were given the orders to launch a military campaign, many civilians will fall," Rawi said. "The Marines in Ramadi now are considering the whole situation as a matter of a challenge, or revenge, because of the daily strikes they get. It makes them put civilians and the al-Qaeda men all in one category."
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.