Extended Occupation Helps U.S. in Ramadi

The Associated Press
Friday, December 8, 2006; 5:18 AM

RAMADI, Iraq -- The soldiers swallow diet pills and slurp can after can of Red Bull, fighting to stay awake as they peer from armored Humvees into the pre-dawn darkness. Twangy country music pours from some vehicle sound systems, angry rap from others.

Every few minutes, an explosion is heard, but it's only the Marines blowing down doors as they storm from house to house, searching for sniper rifles, bomb-making materials and suspected insurgents.

"Operation Squeeze Play" is proving easier than expected considering this 20-block section of southeastern Ramadi _ known as "Second Officer's District" because it's home to so many former leaders of Saddam Hussein's army _ was not so long ago a no-go zone for U.S. troops.

"You used to look at a map and it'd be like the Columbus-era, 'South of here lies dragons,' because nobody ever went there," said Capt. Jon Paul Hart, assistant operations officer for the Army's 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment. "All we knew was that it was really bad, really dangerous."

Ramadi, the capital of the western, overwhelming Sunni Arab province of al-Anbar, has seen some of the bloodiest street battles of the war. Sunni insurgents remain well-entrenched here and continue to move freely through parts of downtown where Americans often dare not set foot.

At least six U.S. troops were killed in fierce fighting in the province on Wednesday, the military said.

But as the White House faces calls to revisit its Iraq policy, U.S. forces in Ramadi insist their strategy here _ taking ground and holding it _ is proving effective.

"You have to occupy ground and stay there," said Capt. Greg Pavlichko, commander of a company involved in "Squeeze Play." "You have to live where you're fighting and let the people see you're committed to an area."

Commanders also say that any progress in Ramadi will evaporate almost overnight if U.S. forces pull out of the city. There is speculation the U.S. may scale back its operations here and throughout Anbar to focus on the violence and chaos in Baghdad.

"I think to give up on Anbar would be to give up on Iraq," Hart said. "It would be giving up all that we've worked very hard, sacrificed a lot of lives, to gain."

U.S. forces have compartmentalized much of south-central Ramadi, guarding key throughways with tanks and lookout posts to prevent the planting of roadside bombs. They also have established "command outposts" in mansions riddled with bullet holes and government buildings half-leveled by rocket attacks, while opening new police stations throughout the city.

"We're not losing this. Things aren't as dire as everybody says," said Lt. Col. Pete Lee, the executive officer for the 1st Brigade Combat Division's 1st Armored Division.

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