Outside Ramadi's city auditorium, the mortar rounds fell, two, then three, each rattling the concrete walls slightly. Inside, locked in an intense debate about what it would take for American troops in Iraq to withdraw, none of the camouflaged Marines or robed Sunni Arab tribal leaders even flinched.
"We all want the withdrawal," Nasir Abdul Karim, leader of Anbar province's Albu Rahad tribe, told scores of the armed Marines and Sunni sheiks, clerical leaders and other elders at the gathering Monday in Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad. "We all believe it is an illegitimate occupation, and it is a legitimate resistance."
"We're committed to withdrawing," responded Brig. Gen. James L. Williams of the 2nd Marine Division, "as soon as we have strong units" in the Iraqi army to replace U.S.-led forces. "I understand the resistance," Williams added, commenting later that he was referring to the peaceful opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq. "But you must understand we're military people. People who are shot at will shoot back."
The spirited exchange in Ramadi came at the largest meeting yet between those suspected of supporting the Iraqi insurgency and the U.S. forces battling them. The comments by the tribal leaders, and similar remarks to reporters Tuesday in Fallujah, 30 miles away, offered fresh evidence of how the debate in the United States about pulling out troops is also echoing through Iraq. President Bush is expected to address growing public sentiment for withdrawal in a speech Wednesday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Nowhere is support for a U.S. military exit stronger than in Anbar province in western Iraq, heart of the Sunni insurgency, where fighters control whole communities along the Euphrates River, and where money and materiel flow in from neighboring Syria. Elsewhere in Iraq, many people who resent the U.S. presence say they fear factional struggles and upheaval if the U.S. troops leave too quickly. But in Anbar cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah, the calls for a pullout are enthusiastically applauded.
"The people of Fallujah love Cindy Sheehan," declared Farouk Abd-Muhammed, a candidate for National Assembly in Dec. 15 elections, referring to the mother of a slain Marine who became a U.S. antiwar activist. He spoke Tuesday at a pre-election meeting of local leaders in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, scene of the largest U.S. offensive of the war in November 2004.
Abd-Muhammed described watching recent television reports with his family showing Americans waving banners that read "Stop the war in Iraq."
"I salute the American people because we know after watching them on satellite that they are ready to leave," Abd-Muhammed said.
"We know that there are now voices, even in the Congress, that want America to leave Iraq as soon as possible," said Fawzi Muhammed, an engineer who is the deputy chairman of Fallujah's reconstruction committee. "It makes us feel very happy and comfortable because it is the only solution to the problems in Iraq."
Unlike Fallujah -- seen now by some U.S. commanders as a model of cooperation between Sunni leaders and the military -- people in Ramadi appear to know comparatively little of the debate in the United States over the war. Fighting here, including insurgent bomb attacks, knocked out most of the provincial capital's communications to the outside world, and U.S. forces were able to restore a vital fiber-optics cable only this month.
But the distrust -- and the disconnect -- between the U.S. forces and the Iraqis here runs strong. Sunday, the day before the meeting, was the first "zero casualty" day the city had experienced in some time, Williams said.
Heavy fighting, and a heavy U.S. presence to try to curb it, have left the city a bombed-out, weed-overgrown, deserted wasteland. As observers arrived for the meeting, Marines prodded them to run from the government building to the nearby meeting hall, fearing that bullets or mortar rounds would make it over the blast walls.
Williams said he had discussed the planned gathering since July with Mamoun Sami Rashid Alwani, the third governor of Anbar to take office so far this year. One of Rashid Alwani's predecessors was killed in a U.S. firefight with insurgents; the other quit after his sons were kidnapped.
Rashid Alwani, a target of insurgents because he has worked with the new Iraqi government and the Americans, survived "seven or eight" assassination attempts before the meeting came about, Williams said.
For U.S. officers, the fact that the gathering took place was heartening. "If there's a debate today, the whole city is seeing democracy," Capt. Philip Nash, a Marine commander in Ramadi, said before it began. "It's a town-hall meeting in Ramadi."
"Today's awesome," Nash added as scores of U.S. Marines took up positions for the meeting, and Iraqi forces checked the Sunni leaders filing in for weapons. "They're coming, and I haven't seen that before."
An Iraqi journalist for the country's state-sponsored al-Sabah newspaper, waiting with Nash for the meeting to start, looked at him. "In Saddam's day they would have slaughtered a sheep for visits like this," he told the American captain, referring to the ousted president, Saddam Hussein. "Today I think maybe they will slaughter you."
The Americans said they called the meeting to discuss security, talk about what conditions would lead to a U.S. withdrawal from the province, and encourage Sunni participation in the upcoming national elections.
But the clerics in the audience said they came for one reason: They were told the Americans wanted to discuss plans for a U.S. military pullout.
"We want them to withdraw from the province," Muhammed Dulaimy, an Arabic professor at Ramadi's Anbar University, said as about 200 of the province's elders settled into their seats. "They called the meeting. We came to see why they are talking to us. We didn't come to talk about the election. If it's about the election, we'll leave."
The American pitch was simple: Encourage tribal members to join the military, so that Iraq's national forces can build to a strength that would allow U.S. forces to withdraw, and to discourage attacks on American and Iraqi forces.
The Anbar elders' demands were equally straightforward: Allow the tribes to build up their own army division for Anbar. Leave, and the attacks will stop.
But the disconnect ran strong, and as always for Americans in Iraq, the inability to speak the language didn't help. Marine interpreters, Arabic speakers hired from outside Iraq, repeatedly bobbled the point.
"Your best step would be to convince your sons to join the army and police, so these people not from your city can leave your city," Lt. Gen. Hikmet Hussein, commander of the Iraqi 7th Division here, told the tribal leaders.
"You need to move forward in this city,'' translated the Marines' interpreter, who appeared to be from North Africa. "You need to get involved."
Speakers complained of the heavy American presence in the blasted city center, of sniper shootings, of arrests and raids. Unheard by Americans, the elders occasionally catcalled from the audience. One stood up to complain when a female American political adviser sat down next to a white-bearded imam. "Show some respect for the turban!" the man shouted.
"God bless you, God bless you," others in the audience added, after the woman moved to another seat.
"We haven't seen anything since Saddam fell!" another man shouted.
"I think it's really a helpful debate," a Marine watching from the back told a reporter, as Arab man after Arab man rose to complain of the U.S. military presence, some thrusting a finger at the Marines. One after another, Sunni men identified themselves by their officer rank in Iraq's former army as they spoke, as if Hussein's force was still in existence.
A Greater Enemy
"We hoped we would see an already made plan and not discuss it any more," another sheik, Anwar Khirbeet, said of the talk of American withdrawal. "People here are against the occupation forces. We frankly consider the current government as a terrorist government."
Khirbeet drew the only applause of the day when he warned that Sunni Arabs faced a greater enemy in Anbar than Americans: the Iranian-allied religious parties of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, now in power in Baghdad. "The occupation will end sooner or later; the most dangerous thing we can face is the Iranian involvement,'' he said, to loud clapping from the crowd.
"They'll bring us the Wolf Brigade next!" shouted a man in the audience, referring to the Interior Ministry force that many Sunnis allege is linked to the late-night kidnappings and killings of Sunnis.
By 3:15 p.m., five mortar rounds had landed outside, to the left of the meeting hall. The mortar fire was heavier than usual, Americans said, and clearly launched to make a point. Then, the nearest round of the day hit, apparently overshooting the building and striking to the right, making the windows rattle briefly in their frames.
"These spoilers out there are trying to intimidate,'' Williams said, taking note of the firing for the first time that day. "Not one of you blinked an eye. So that's very good."
The elders murmured, approvingly.
"We're here to work through the problems,'' Williams urged. "These are complex problems. There are not easy solutions, but there are solutions."
His words were translated differently, however. "I don't have any time to waste," is how they were conveyed by another army interpreter, an older Lebanese man, seemingly impatient after five hours of talks, and improvising in an apparent effort to bring them to a close. "Even if you all do have time to waste, today's not the day."
Thus prodded, Marines and tribal leaders reached an agreement: Anbar's elders would come up with a plan that would satisfy U.S. conditions for security and allow U.S. troops to pull out of Ramadi, and Williams would try to pitch it to Baghdad. Despite the disconnect, both sides had gotten across enough of their points to satisfy, at least to a degree.
"It may work," said one Hussein-era army commander, identifying himself as Gen. Sant-Rawi, standing up to go, just before the day's seventh mortar round landed outside.
Finer reported from Fallujah.