RAMADI, Iraq—Iraq's insurgency has concentrated much of its fight against U.S. and Iraqi forces in towns along the murky waters of the Euphrates River, beginning with Qaim on the Syrian border and running through towns such as Haditha, Haqlaniya, Hit, Ramadi and Fallujah. They're all in Anbar province, the heartland of Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority, which dominated the government under Saddam Hussein.
In the cities where U.S. forces have set up bases—such as Ramadi and Fallujah—the fighting has destroyed much of the infrastructure but failed to completely secure the areas. In smaller towns, American forces launch repeated raids to clear the streets of insurgents only to see them return as soon as the Marines and soldiers are gone.
Three weeks of reporting embedded with American troops in Anbar's main centers of guerrilla resistance found that U.S. forces are failing to make headway, and some commanders fear that much of the military effort is wasted.
"It doesn't do much good to push them out of these areas only to let them go back to areas we've already cleared," said Lt. Col. Tim Mundy, who commands the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Marine Regiment. Mundy, 40, of Waynesville, N.C., whose battalion is based in Qaim, added: "We're successful at taking some of his equipment and killing some insurgents, but the effectiveness is limited because we can't stay ... we go back to camp and then we get reports that they've come back in."
_ In Fallujah, a city that Marines and soldiers retook from insurgents last November in the heaviest urban combat since Vietnam, fighters have begun to return and renew their intimidation campaign.
"As we all know, we have mujahedeen operating in small squads throughout the city," Marine Sgt. Manuel Franquez said before leading a patrol in Fallujah last week, using an Arabic term that means "holy warrior."
On the city streets, Franquez's men passed just north of where a suicide car bomber had killed five Marines, including four women, in late June. Scorch marks still blacken the pavement.
Guerrilla fighters have blown up one police station under construction twice and kidnapped and executed a contractor who was involved in the project. At two other unfinished police stations, concertina wire and a series of observation posts manned by Iraqi soldiers with AK-47s protect the bricks.
A series of checkpoints locked down the city after November's assault. Military officials called it the safest city in Iraq. Now the area is attacked four to nine times each day, including by roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and sniper fire. Car bombs average two a week.
_ Ramadi, the provincial capital, had a functioning downtown corridor two years ago, where parents walked with children and ate lunch at tables outside kabob shops. Today, the street is pocked with holes from bombs intended for U.S. convoys, storefronts are ripped by shrapnel, bullet holes tattoo walls, buildings have been blown to rubble by American missile strikes and insurgent mortar volleys, and roofs are caved in by U.S. bombing. At the main base in Ramadi, American artillery booms every night, sending more shells to pound insurgent positions in and around the city.
Insurgents attack about 77 times a day in Iraq, according to Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top military spokesman in Iraq. In the Ramadi area alone, which has about 400,000 people, there are eight to 10 attacks daily, according to the office of Col. John Gronski, 49, of Moosic, Pa., who commands the Army task force that's responsible for Ramadi.
Guerrilla fighters have badly damaged or destroyed eight of 10 police stations. The police force there has been scrapped and is being rebuilt.
Col. Regis Cardiff, the deputy commanding officer of the U.S. Army task force that's responsible for Ramadi, the 28th Infantry Division, rode through downtown recently.
The last time he'd left the base, a roadside bomb hit his convoy. A week earlier, an insurgent's 82 mm mortar round crashed into the chow hall where he eats.
Watching the streetscape pass by, Cardiff muttered, "the wild, wild west."
"You hate to see anything like that. I'm sure this was a pretty city at one time," said Cardiff, who's from Pittsburgh. He acknowledged that if the fighting continues he's not sure whether a downtown will be left.
_ In western Anbar, Marines have made a series of quick raids on towns including Karabilah, Haditha and Haqlaniya. But as soon as the Marines leave, typically after about a week sweeping through houses, the insurgents filter back in and set up base again, military officials said.
"If you go to an area and you don't stay in that area, the insurgency will return to that area and intimidate the local population," said Lt. Col Lionel Urquhart, who commands the 3rd Battalion of the 25th Marine Regiment.
Urquhart said he didn't have enough men to maintain a permanent presence in places such as Haditha.
"You're going to have this constant need to go back in and clean it up again ... we have to go back in and make it clear to everybody that the insurgency does not control this country," said Urquhart, 44, of Akron, Ohio. "Is that a good way of doing business? I'm not going to say that."
When Marines re-entered Haqlaniya during a recent operation, virtually every downtown storefront had pro-jihad messages spray-painted on it: "Allah is our God, Jihad is our way"; "Long live the mujahedeen"; "Long live jihad"; "It is your duty to fight for jihad in Iraq"; "Death to those who collaborate with Americans."
North of Ramadi, Marines launched a major operation, dubbed New Market, to clean up Haditha earlier this year. The area has since returned to lawlessness, military officials said. Earlier this month, 20 Marines were killed just south of Haditha in an ambush and a roadside bombing.
Since March, insurgents have killed or wounded more than a third of the men in the two companies in Urquhart's battalion that have been his main fighting forces for the past half-year. Lima Company, with 156 men, has had 22 killed in action and 31 wounded. Kilo Company, with about 150 men, has had four killed and at least 50 wounded.
Many of the injuries have been serious: Only 47 of the 98 wounded men in Urquhart's battalion have returned to duty.
Down the Euphrates River from Urquhart, Army Sgt. 1st Class Tom Coffey commands a platoon from the Army's 28th Infantry Division along Ramadi's southern border. His men are hit by roadside bombs almost every day.
"There's no way I can control this area with the men I have," Coffey, 37, of Burlington, Vt., said in a recent interview. "The reports are that the insurgents are using these southern control points because they're open. We can't keep them closed because I don't have the manpower."
He said that in the previous week a sniper had shot an Iraqi soldier working with his company in the face and killed him. Snipers also shot two American soldiers, one through the hand and the other through the hand and gut.
A few minutes later Coffey's radio squawked. A rocket-propelled grenade had hit one of his Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Rushing to the scene, he found the driver and crew safe, but one of the soldiers in the vehicle looked at Coffey with large eyes and said, "I hate being up here by my f------ self." Without another Bradley or Humvee close by, it's easy for insurgents to pop up from behind, Coffey said.
"I know there're caches and bad guys out there," said Coffey's commander, Maj. Jason Pelletier, 32, of Milton, Vt. "And they know that I don't have the manpower to get out there. You don't have to be that smart to realize that."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-INSURGENCY
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050825 USIRAQ Anbar