By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006; A14
RAMADI, Iraq -- The dusty neighborhood in east Ramadi was deserted last week as U.S. and Iraqi soldiers rolled up to deliver water at a mosque. Not a good sign in this urban war zone, where residents vanish whenever an insurgent attack is imminent.
"No one's around," said Staff Sgt. Guillermo Valadez, a civil affairs soldier from San Diego. "They believe a lot of the rumors from insurgents that we'll shoot them," he said, his rifle at the ready. Iraqi soldiers kept watch from nearby rooftops. Tanks stood on alert a few minutes away.
In Ramadi, a Sunni insurgent stronghold considered by U.S. commanders to be the most contentious city in Iraq, even the most benign mission is a combat operation. This heavily bombed capital of Anbar province is the deadliest city in the country for U.S. troops relative to its population -- and the last place in Iraq that American forces will be able to leave, U.S. commanders predict. Ramadi averages nearly 20 insurgent attacks a day, and U.S. soldiers here can count on taking enemy fire within 45 minutes of rolling out from their bases.
Widespread fears of a major military sweep of Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad, led to an exodus of residents last month to outlying areas, reducing the population by about a quarter, to 300,000 people, according to residents and U.S. officials. Fighting has escalated as the U.S. military has worked first to isolate Ramadi by building more roadblocks, and then to thrust deeper into areas held by insurgents, setting up new outposts and fighting for ground block by block.
But even as U.S. and Iraqi forces make headway, a week embedded with troops in Ramadi revealed an insurgency that remains so lethal, sophisticated and ubiquitous that it appeared able to scrutinize every move of American and Iraqi soldiers -- whose smallest missteps often proved deadly. On Monday, one U.S. soldier was killed in Ramadi and another wounded by a sniper after they ventured half a block too close to enemy terrain.
Mortar shells pound U.S. camps so routinely that some soldiers say they can't fall asleep until they hear them. Bombs litter most major roads, limiting movement. Teams of insurgent fighters -- or snipers operating alone -- seem ready to exploit their every opportunity.A Costly Delivery
On July 14, as soldiers began hastily unloading boxes of water at the mosque in Ramadi's eastern Mulab district, Sheik Adnan Abdul Latif strode up in a flowing white dishdasha , a traditional robe, wearing a thick beard and a worried look. Like many Ramadi residents, he was terrified of being caught in the crossfire.
"Maybe the mujahideen will mortar the mosque because you bring water here!" Latif said to Valadez through an interpreter. "Things are very bad here now," he said bitterly, adding that it was "much better" before U.S. troops came to Ramadi.
A light-blue car drove slowly down a side street -- possibly carrying an insurgent shooter.
"This is Friday. Soon people will come to the mosque," Latif said hurriedly. "It's not good if they see you here."
As the U.S. and Iraqi troops returned to their vehicles, a bullet cracked the air nearby. Then automatic rifle fire bursts out on either side of them, wounding an Iraqi soldier. It had been 43 minutes since the soldiers left camp.
After the skirmish, the troops headed to the next mosque to hand out more water. A crowd of young boys stood outside, a suggestion that the scene might be less tense than the last. But in Ramadi, even boys who appear harmless are viewed with suspicion.
"Sometimes they take pistols from behind them and shoot!" said Elia, an Iraqi interpreter, mimicking guns with his hands.
The team handed out the rest of the water in a protected zone next to a U.S. military base.Cries for Compensation
On Sunday, the team, led by Capt. Bill Driscoll, headed to the heavily guarded Civil Military Operations Center, set up near a checkpoint on the only open road on Ramadi's east side. Iraqis trickled into the center, making claims for deaths, injuries, or property damaged or occupied by U.S. forces.
Taha Najib al-Ouwaydi, 57, with gray hair and a green dishdasha, said U.S. forces occupied his furniture factory and promised to compensate him but never did. Like several others, Ouwaydi decried the lack of electricity, oil and gas, the poor water, the dearth of food rations, and especially security. "The Americans just protect themselves, not the civilians," Ouwaydi said.
Several women arrived -- an aberration that made Driscoll worry that one could be a suicide bomber. Samira Abood, 35, said she and her six daughters fled her home four months ago because of sniper fire by insurgents and U.S. soldiers. She sought compensation but had received none.
Mushal Daham Abed, 47, a former shop owner, said he lived near the U.S. checkpoint, which had attracted mortar shells and suicide bombings that damaged his house and severely wounded his son, leaving him paralyzed. He claimed that U.S. forces also shot his son, an allegation the U.S. military denied. "It's a real tragic situation," said Driscoll, who gave Abed a generator as a token of sympathy.
An elderly man named Ahmed Jadde Khalil said he had been ordered by U.S. forces to leave his home two months ago and was seeking payment because all the windows were broken and there were holes in the walls. Driscoll agreed to go to the man's home to photograph the evidence, only to learn that U.S. forces are prohibited from driving on the road leading there because it is strewn with bombs.
By then, it was nearing 3 p.m. "You should leave now, before the mortars begin," Abed said.
The troops departed, but "not because of the mortars," said Driscoll, 43, of Tacoma, Wash.
Soon after, a suicide car bomber hit the checkpoint, instantly killing an Iraqi soldier and sending flames into the operations center. A huge cloud of black smoke billowed into the air.'Atmospherics Check'
Monday's mission appeared the least contentious yet. Driscoll's team, along with a small group of military intelligence soldiers, was to spend about 45 minutes talking with residents on Market Street in eastern Ramadi -- what the military calls an "atmospherics check."
But this short talk with locals called for a big security force: multiple tanks and armored vehicles, a team of Navy SEAL snipers, a 101st Airborne infantry platoon, a large contingent of Iraqi army soldiers, and a psychological operations team to broadcast safety messages to residents. In a mission rehearsal, scores of soldiers practiced complex blocking and support-by-fire positions, counter-sniper operations, as well as plans to ignite smoke grenades to obscure the rapid "exfil," or departure, of the team from Market Street.
"We call everything a combat patrol," said Maj. David Womak, operations chief for the 1st Battalion 506th Infantry regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, which leads the U.S. military task force in eastern Ramadi.
The convoys left camp at 9 a.m. and moved into position, but already residents began disappearing from nearby streets. Minutes after Driscoll started talking to a shopkeeper, an urgent call came over the radio. "We have two casualties in our location. We have two casualties hit and we need help!"
Two soldiers had strayed just outside the security perimeter and were shot by a sniper. One, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Dickinson, 26, of Battle Creek, Mich., was killed by a bullet to the aorta. The other lost part of an ear. A tracked vehicle made a fast run to evacuate the men, but its ramp wouldn't close and sparks were flying. Sgt. 1st Class Ben Lewis held on to the wounded to keep them from falling out. Dickinson, an affable soldier, had been packing to return home in a few days.
Then a sniper in a black Opal sedan fired at another Humvee, his bullet narrowly missing the gunner, Spec. Christopher Gaydos, who fired back with his .50-caliber gun. Meanwhile, an Iraqi army soldier had been wounded, making his comrades "skittish," one U.S. soldier said. "It was a mess," Lewis said.
Back in camp, 1st Sgt. Charles Klutts of Chesaning, Mich., summed up the feelings of many U.S. troops in Ramadi. "Every time you go out of the wire you can expect to get shot at, whether you're passing out soccer balls or hunting the enemy down," he said, his pants stained with blood. "It's overwhelming."