Troops Fight to Expand Foothold in Ramadi

Army Spec. Marciano Budel, 23, of Tampa, scans for attackers at a small U.S. military outpost in Ramadi that comes under frequent fire from insurgent snipers.
Army Spec. Marciano Budel, 23, of Tampa, scans for attackers at a small U.S. military outpost in Ramadi that comes under frequent fire from insurgent snipers. (Photos By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 2, 2006

RAMADI, Iraq -- Under a blistering sun, 1st Lt. Matthew Arabian gripped his M-4 rifle and sprinted across a Ramadi intersection cratered by bombs, ducking through a hole blasted in an adjacent brick wall.

"We call that the circle of death," said Arabian, 34, of Vienna, Va., crouching to avoid snipers who target the crossroads from as far away as 900 yards. Around him were gutted buildings and trash-strewn streets, evidence of more than two years of combat in Ramadi.

"We're in the heart of an insurgent hotbed," said Arabian, his face streaked with sweat. "We've walked into their back yard."

From a new military outpost set up in a cluster of abandoned homes in Ramadi's eastern Mulaab district, Arabian and his infantry platoon are fighting for ground. Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's western Anbar province, has sunk into virtual anarchy under the stranglehold of a skilled, well-financed and ruthless insurgency. Now, for the first time, U.S. and Iraqi forces are engaged in a block-by-block campaign to retake the area.

The U.S. strategy here aims to avoid a full-scale military onslaught like the one that demolished much of the nearby city of Fallujah in November 2004, flattening hundreds of homes, emptying it of people and leaving it struggling to rebuild. The senior U.S. commander in Ramadi, Army Col. Sean MacFarland, does not rule out major combat operations. But he makes it clear he sees no value in sending U.S. troops "crashing through like a bull in a china shop."

Instead, U.S. and Iraqi forces are advancing one step at a time into key locations in Ramadi's walled neighborhoods, setting up small outposts of about 100 troops each. The goal is to slowly choke off the insurgents' ability to move freely, making them easier to capture or kill. Meanwhile, Iraqi soldiers, backed by U.S. troops, are to take the lead in patrolling around the outposts, creating small zones of safety for residents that will gradually spread.

Ramadi has lost as much as a quarter of its population of 400,000 since the insurgency began. The city has no effective government and few police officers. Insurgents assassinate officials with impunity, and recently issued a death threat against anyone entering the heavily shelled Government Center downtown. Last month, after the provincial highways director defied the threat, he was captured and beheaded, his body dumped in the street, according to a U.S. military officer.

Joblessness in Ramadi is at least 40 percent and there is no local industry, with utilities and other vital infrastructure regularly blown up by insurgents, U.S. officers say. Residents survive on irregular food rations and wait hours for fuel that often doesn't arrive. The chaos and stagnation create steady recruits for the insurgency -- estimated to have 1,500 hard-core members and hundreds more part-time fighters -- even as U.S. and Iraqi forces have killed at least 200 insurgents since June alone.

Warfare rocks the city daily. Over a one-month period this summer, insurgents launched nearly 600 attacks, laying about 250 roadside bombs, firing more than 100 rockets and mortars, waging 150 assaults with rifles and machine guns, and setting off four suicide car bombs. "The problem set is mind-numbing," said Maj. David Womack, operations officer for the 101st Airborne Division's battalion in charge of eastern Ramadi. A warning in bold type posted at the battalion's dusty headquarters advises all soldiers to "be polite, be professional, and have a plan to kill everyone you meet."

For years, there were far too few troops in Ramadi to attempt to occupy so many small, protected outposts. In 2004, a Marine battalion lost dozens of men as it fought alone to hold down two bases and the main route through the city. Since then, combat units have suffered heavier casualties here than in any other comparably sized Iraqi city. Today, Ramadi has three times as many American troops as in 2004, as well as two Iraqi army brigades, although U.S. officers say still more Iraqi soldiers are needed to secure the city.

"We're covering this area much more than it ever has been before," said Arabian. By all accounts, it's a grinding fight for each bit of ground.

At Arabian's austere outpost in the Mulaab district of Ramadi, soldiers eat mostly packaged rations, defecate in plastic bags that they burn nightly, and sleep in shifts on cots crammed into a single room. Arabian rarely sleeps -- instead, he is glued to his radio, monitoring the constant threat from insurgents seeking to overrun the base.

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