In Iraqi Town, U.S. Feels Push Toward an Exit
Friday, August 4, 2006
HIT, Iraq -- Lt. Col. Thomas Graves wasn't expecting trouble as his convoy rolled toward this embattled Euphrates River town at midday recently, on a mission to monitor Friday prayers at mosques.
Local officials had assured Graves, the top U.S. commander in the area, that Hit was "going through a period of peace and quiet," he said shortly before leaving his camp.
But just as Graves reached the edge of town, the road in front of his Humvee exploded in a cloud of dust and debris. An insurgent hiding in a nearby palm grove had detonated two buried artillery rounds, narrowly missing the colonel.
"Welcome to Hit! It's a peaceful little town -- sorta," Graves told a reporter traveling with him.
So it goes here in western Iraq's Anbar province, a center of Sunni resistance. In Hit, U.S. forces and their Iraqi counterparts are the target of most of the two dozen attacks -- road bombs, shootings and mortar fire -- each week. Residents are quick to argue that the American presence incites those attacks, and they blame the U.S. military rather than insurgents for turning their town into a combat zone. The Americans should pull out, they say, and let them solve their own problems.
Increasingly, the U.S. military seems eager to oblige.
While senior U.S. commanders have indicated that troops will be required to stay longer in Anbar than elsewhere in Iraq, they have already begun cutting back forces in some smaller, less strategic towns along the Euphrates. In Hit, Graves's Army battalion replaced a much bigger Marine contingent; U.S. troops have been ordered recently to leave other regions in western Anbar to reinforce Baghdad.
"We want the same thing. I want to go home to my wife," Graves, of Killeen, Tex., said he told Hit officials when his unit, the 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division, arrived here in February. The goal, Graves said, is for U.S. forces to leave Hit proper and patrol only the main highway passing by the town.
Another U.S. officer put it more bluntly: "Nobody wants us here, so why are we here? That's the big question," said Maj. Brent E. Lilly. Lilly leads a Marine civil affairs team that has disbursed many thousands of dollars for damage claims and projects in Hit, but is still mortared almost daily. "If we leave, all the attacks would stop, because we'd be gone."
Lying 35 miles upriver from Anbar's capital of Ramadi, Hit is an ancient city known for its tar deposits and relatively educated population. But more than two years of warfare have dragged the town of 40,000 people back to the pre-industrial age.
All phone systems in Hit have been destroyed. The war has shut down industry, so at least 50 percent of the people are jobless and a quarter live in poverty. The town's bank holds no money. Fuel is scarce, and most of what is available is sold by insurgents at black-market prices, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. The police disbanded more than a year ago and Hit still has no officers on the job, although a new force is in training.
Conditions in the city are so bad that Hit's mayor recently asked the U.S. military to send him to Abu Ghraib prison -- "just for the summer," he told one U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. "You have air conditioning, three meals a day, soccer balls. Abu Ghraib is a nice place," the mayor said, according to the U.S. officer.