FALLUJAH, Iraq—Insurgents in Anbar province, the center of guerrilla resistance in Iraq, have fought the U.S. military to a stalemate.
After repeated major combat offensives in Fallujah and Ramadi, and after losing hundreds of soldiers and Marines in Anbar during the past two years—including 75 since June 1—many American officers and enlisted men assigned to Anbar have stopped talking about winning a military victory in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland. Instead, they're trying to hold on to a handful of population centers and hit smaller towns in a series of quick-strike operations designed to disrupt insurgent activities temporarily.
"I don't think of this in terms of winning," said Col. Stephen Davis, who commands a task force of about 5,000 Marines in an area of some 24,000 square miles in the western portion of Anbar. Instead, he said, his Marines are fighting a war of attrition. "The frustrating part for the (American) audience, if you will, is they want finality. They want a fight for the town and in the end the guy with the white hat wins."
That's unlikely in Anbar, Davis said. He expects the insurgency to last for years, hitting American and Iraqi forces with quick ambushes, bombs and mines. Roadside bombs have hit vehicles Davis was riding in three times this year already.
"We understand counter-insurgency ... we paid for these lessons in blood in Vietnam," Davis said. "You'll get killed on a nice day when everything is quiet."
Most of Iraq is far quieter than Anbar. But Anbar is Iraq's largest province and home to the Arab Sunni minority, which dominated the government under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. It's the strategic center of the country, and failure to secure it could thwart the Bush administration's hopes of helping to create a functioning Iraqi democracy.
Military officials now frequently compare the fight in Anbar to the Vietnam War, saying that guerrilla fighters, who blend back into the population, are trying to break the will of the American military—rather than defeat it outright—and to erode public support for the war back home.
"If it were just killing people that would win this, it'd be easy," said Marine Maj. Nicholas Visconti, 35, of Brookfield, Conn., who served in southern Iraq in 2003. "But look at Vietnam. We killed millions, and they kept coming. It's a war of attrition. They're not trying to win. It's just like in Vietnam. They won a long, protracted fight that the American public did not have the stomach for. ... Killing people is not the answer; rebuilding the cities is."
Minutes after he spoke, two mortar rounds flew over the building where he's based in Hit. Visconti didn't flinch as the explosions rang out.
During three weeks of reporting along the Euphrates River valley, home to Anbar's main population centers and the core of insurgent activity, military officials offered three primary reasons that guerrilla fighters have held and gained ground: the enemy's growing sophistication, insufficient numbers of U.S. troops and the lack of trained and reliable Iraqi security forces.
They described an enemy who's intelligent and adaptive:
_ Military officials in Ramadi said insurgents there had learned the times of their patrol shift changes. When one group of vehicles comes to relieve another, civilian traffic is pushed to the side of the road to allow the military to pass. Insurgents plan and use this opportunity, surrounded by other cars, to drop homemade bombs out their windows or through holes cut in the rear floor.
_ The insurgents have figured out by trial and error the different viewing ranges of the optics systems in American tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Humvees.
"They've mapped it out. They go into the road and try to draw fire to see what our range is and then they make a note of it and start putting IEDs that far out," said Army Maj. Jason Pelletier, 32, of the 28th Infantry Division, referring to improvised explosive devices, the military's term for homemade bombs. "It's that cat-and-mouse game. They do something, we react and they note our reaction," said Pelletier, who's from Milton, Vt.
_ Faced with the U.S. military's technological might, guerrilla fighters have relied on gathering intelligence and using cheap, effective devices to kill and maim.
Marines raided a home near their base in Hit and found three Sudanese insurgents with a crude map they'd drawn of the American base, including notes detailing when patrols left the gate, whether they were on foot or in vehicles and the numbers of Marines on the patrols.
The three men also had $11,000 in cash in an area in which insurgents pay locals $50 to plant bombs in the road.
The guerrilla fighters in Hit have used small, yellow and pink, Japanese star-shaped alarm clocks—similar to those popular with little girls in the United States—as timers to detonate rocket launchers and mortar systems aimed at Marine positions. They frequently use sawed-off curtain rods planted 50 or so yards away to calibrate the ranges to nearby bases. One of the two Marine positions in the city receives mortar fire almost daily. Patrols from the other base are hit by frequent roadside bombings.
Instead of referring to the enemy derisively as "terrorists"—as they used to—Marines and soldiers now give the insurgents a measure of respect by calling them "mujahedeen," an Arabic term meaning "holy warrior" that became popular during the Afghan guerrilla campaign against the Soviet Union.
Military commanders in Anbar hope to combat the insurgency through a multi-pronged strategy of political progress, reconstruction and training Iraqi security forces.
However, there's been less political progress in Anbar than in Iraq's Kurdish north and Shiite Muslim south, the violence there has stymied progress in rebuilding towns destroyed in the fighting and Iraqi forces are still a long way from being able to secure the province.
U.S. officials hope that a strong turnout in national elections in December will turn people away from violence. They expressed similar hopes before last January's elections. However, while those elections were a success in many parts of the nation, in Anbar the turnout was in the single digits.
"Some of the Iraqis say they want to vote but they're worried there'll be a bomb at the polling station," Marine Capt. James Haunty, 27, of Columbus, Ohio, said recently. "It's a legitimate fear, but I always tell them, just trust me."
Less than five minutes after Haunty spoke, near the town of Hit, a roadside bomb down the street produced a loud boom followed by a funnel of black smoke.
Many Sunnis in Anbar say they'll vote against the constitution in October, as they've felt excluded from the process of drafting the document.
While fighting has badly damaged many towns and precluded widespread reconstruction efforts, Marines in Fallujah are working to make that city a centerpiece of rebuilding. Fallujah residences sustained some $225 million in damage last November during a U.S. assault aimed at clearing the city of insurgents, according to Marine Lt. Col. Jim Haldeman, who oversees the civil military operations center in Fallujah.
Homeowners have received 20 percent of that amount to rebuild homes, and will get the next 20 percent in the coming weeks, Haldeman said. Families are walking the streets once again and shops have reopened. The sound of hammers is constant, and men line the streets mixing concrete and laying bricks out to dry.
Even so, of the 250,000 population before the fighting, just 150,000 residents have returned. And the insurgency has come back to the area.
Iraqis are still a long way from being able to provide their own security in Anbar. As with much of the province, Fallujah has no functioning police force. Police in Ramadi are confined to two heavily fortified stations, after insurgents destroyed or seriously damaged eight others.
The Iraqi national guard, heralded last year as the answer to local security, was dissolved because of incompetence and insurgent infiltration, as was the guard's predecessor, the civil defense corps.
The new Iraqi army has participated in all the Marines' recent sweeps in Anbar, in a limited way. While the Iraqi soldiers haven't thrown down their weapons and run, as they have in the past, many of them are still unable to operate without close U.S. supervision.
Lasseter made regular trips to Fallujah in the summer and winter of 2003, interviewing tribal sheiks and residents there before the town fell to insurgents. He wrote extensively about the brewing unrest in the region, and the misunderstandings and conflicts between residents and the U.S. military units stationed there. During that period he was able to walk freely throughout the town with a translator. He was last in Fallujah without military escort in early 2004 when insurgents overran the downtown police station. After men repeatedly pointed AK-47s at his chest and face and threatened to shoot him, he decided not to return except with American troops. Insurgents took over the town that April. He reported on troops in Ramadi last summer, and wrote about the scaling back of patrols there and low morale among troops. He returned to Anbar province in November, when U.S. troops retook Fallujah in the worst urban combat since Vietnam. For this series of stories, Lasseter spent three weeks in the province this month embedded with Marine and Army units in Haqlaniya, Haditha, Hit, Ramadi and Fallujah.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-INSURGENCY
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050824 USIRAQ forces and 20050825 USIRAQ Anbar