By WILL WEISSERT
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.
That assessment is still very much up for debate, however.
Explosions from roadside bombs still shake Ramadi around the clock and snipers perch on rooftops, loiter near windows and crouch in the back of vehicles waiting to take a shot at Americans. At one U.S. outpost in Ramadi, soldiers have to don body armor during daylight hours just to step into the backyard, where their makeshift outhouse is located.
Even "Squeeze Play" could have been ugly. Advance teams found a string of 11 anti-tank mines _ each the size of a medium pizza _ half-submerged in sewage in a creek-bed near the entrance to the neighborhood Marines were moving in to search. A trio of roadside bombs exploded during the mission, two of them damaging heavily armored vehicles but causing no casualties.
The insurgency first made significant gains in Ramadi and elsewhere in Sunni-dominated Anbar after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, and many Sunnis in Ramadi were receptive when al-Qaida in Iraq moved in. Unlike in Baghdad, insurgents succeeded in taking over basic facets of life in the city and other parts of Anbar, controlling schools, health care and mosques.
"Al-Qaida in Iraq really made a stand here," said Lt. Col. V.J. Tedesco III, the 42-year-old commander of the 900-troop task force conducting "Squeeze Play," which includes soldiers, Marines, sailors and pilots and is assigned to central Ramadi.
In between heavy firefights, U.S. forces have worked to convince residents that the insurgents are interested in Anbar for purely selfish reasons. They are training a new Iraqi army and police force in hopes Iraqis will one day be strong enough to restore order in Ramadi on their own.
But the Iraqi army is largely made up of Shiites and Kurds and some of its officers freely acknowledge they don't trust Sunnis. Recruited locally, meanwhile, the police force in Ramadi is Sunni, prompting fears of feuds with the army.
Ramadi has no city council and the mayor only began work last month. Unemployment is rampant, and those without jobs are often willing to take cash payments to plant explosives on a highway or become full-time insurgents.
The few local leaders who have taken office here and elsewhere throughout Anbar complain that the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad ignores their funding requests for basic services, infrastructure and public safety.
Without U.S. forces, all pretense of government could collapse, said Tedesco, the task force commander.
"A lot of people may not like that so many years after the war ended, there are still Americans here," he said. "They may not love us, but they need us because the alternative is to live in a terrorist state."