By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."Steps Backward
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.
Residents complain bitterly about U.S. military roadblocks and curfews, even though they are designed to prevent attacks. Seven different U.S. military units have swept into Hit conducting assaults since 2003. Major roads are routinely cut off for months, leaving some areas uninhabited except by packs of stray dogs. Hit's bridge over the Euphrates is closed to non-military vehicles, forcing residents to cross by foot or in wooden carts.
One recent afternoon, 1st Lt. Joshua Buchanan stepped out of a U.S. combat outpost perched amid mud ruins overlooking Hit's bridge. The riverfront below -- once crowded with fish restaurants, shops and homes -- is now virtually abandoned, with many of its buildings destroyed. The ground is covered with a thick layer of dust created by U.S. tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
Pedestrians trickled over the bridge as Buchanan led a patrol into Hit's market area. Residents looked on blankly, responding only when he greeted them in Arabic. "You try to build a silent rapport," said Buchanan, 27, a former history teacher from Great Falls, Va. "You know you'll never be best friends."
Asked about Hit, market dwellers vented frustration with the U.S. military. "The problem is with the Americans. They only bring problems," said watermelon vendor Sefuab Ganiydum, 35. "Closing the bridge, the curfew, the hospital. It's better for U.S. forces to leave the city," he said. Pregnant women and other patients must cross the bridge to the hospital in wooden carts, he complained. At night, many are afraid they'll be shot if they go.
"Even the dead are taken by wheelbarrow," added Mohammed Hussein, 30, at his cucumber stall.
Akram Mushaan, 45, said the war has hurt business, as customers are few and many can't afford to pay. Rather than let his melons spoil, he gives them away, he said, flipping through a book filled with IOUs.
"What did we do to have all this suffering?" asked Ramsey Abdullah Hindi, 60, sitting outside a tea shop. Ignoring U.S. troops within earshot, he said Iraqis were justified to attack them. "They have a right to fight against the Americans because of their religion and the bad treatment. We will stand until the last," he said somberly.
Buchanan pressed on with the patrol, all too familiar with the gripes. "Everything's our fault. I understand that," he said.Open Corruption
City officials, too, are adamant that U.S. troops leave Hit. But many -- corrupt and protected by suspected ties with insurgents -- are using their positions to tap into American money as long as they can, U.S. officials say.
"The city council survives because they work on issues that affect everyone, like water. Insurgents need water, too," explained Lilly, a Marine reservist and a financial analyst in Detroit. "If I want to say something to the insurgents, I just say it to the city council. I know they'll get the word."
In an abandoned classroom lined with dusty books and plaster models of body organs, Lilly sits at the head of a table, going through a stack of reconstruction proposals as Hit officials look on.
"We're not going to purchase ambulances because there's no phone system. No one can call," he said. "We're not going to repair the gas station because it had a weapons cache." Next he scolded Hit's water manager, Usama Abdul Rahman Jameel, for trying to get $4,000 for a $2,000 water project.
"It's my lucky day," Jameel replied sarcastically.
"He's corrupt, but at least he's honest about it," Lilly said later of Jameel. "He's like, 'Yeah, I'm taking as much as I can off you.' "
Soon after the city officials left, a mortar round pounded Lilly's compound. He threw on his body armor, grabbed his rifle and rushed to the roof. Lilly, an Arabic speaker and Muslim known around Hit as "Abdul Rahman," is disconcerted by how often he takes fire. "I'm the guy doing the good stuff and I get shot at all the time!" he said later in his office, ignoring more mortar blasts. "Nobody is pro-American in this city. They either tolerate us or all-out hate us."
In an effort to win cooperation, Graves has tried softer tactics. Raids are still frequent -- Graves has sent 130 people from Hit to prison -- but his soldiers avoid using stun grenades, after a city official complained that they made him afraid to make love to his wife at night.
Lilly and other U.S. officers said they were increasingly persuaded that U.S. forces could withdraw outside the city with little military impact, even with only a rudimentary local government and Iraqi security force in Hit. While the Iraqi army contingent in Hit has shrunk to about 400 men, 60 percent of its strength, police officers recruited from outlying tribes are undergoing training.
"If we do leave, the city will be a lot better and they'll build it a lot better," Lilly said.
Pulling out U.S. forces would also mean reopening the Hit bridge to civilian traffic. American troops have held the bridge for more than a year since insurgents attacked it with a car bomb. "We don't really gain anything from it," said Maj. Michael Fadden, of Dayton, Ohio, the battalion's operations officer.
Added another U.S. officer, "If the insurgents want to blow up the bridge, damn it, let them!"