It is always tempting fate to write about a success story in Iraq: by the time your article sees print, some terrible atrocity may well have been perpetrated. Case in point: Ramadi.
Last week, I wrote in both the Weekly Standard and the Los Angeles Times about the remarkable success that U.S. forces have had recently in pacifying this one-time al-Qaeda stronghold. Sure enough, on Monday, April 23, and Tuesday, April 24, just as these articles were appearing, several car bombs went off near Ramadi.
Do these bombings call into question how much success U.S. forces have been having? I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, with responsibility for Ramadi and the surrounding area. Below is the response he emailed back to me yesterday, which he agreed to let me share with contentions readers. (Note that the estimated toll he gives for the bombings—thirteen killed—is much lower than the death toll cited in most news accounts, such as this BBC story, which reported at least 45 dead).
Sorry about the delayed response, but email went down and then I had a couple real busy days. Bottom line on last week’s VBIED [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] attacks—
The first one targeted an IP [Iraqi Police] station. It was intercepted and destroyed prior to reaching the station but caused 5 IP WIA’s [wounded in action] and over 20 civilian WIA’s. Another VBIED attacked an IP checkpoint on the highway resulting in 13 IP KIA [killed in action] and 8 IP WIA. This VBIED was also attempting to destroy an IP station but was intercepted before it could reach its target. The casualty count was so high because the IP’s were in the process of shift change at that location.
Last week the IP’s successfully intercepted a VBIED on the highway with no civilian or IP casualties. The IP’s did the same thing yesterday with no casualties. I gave awards to last week’s heroes and will do the same for those who stopped yesterday’s VBIED attack.
The IP’s in Ramadi are constantly on guard against VBIED’s. Unfortunately, even if the VBIED fails to reach its target, they still are deadly to anyone nearby. Al Qaeda will continue to try to attack the Ramadi IP’s and civilians with these VBIED’s in order to gain headlines. They know they were defeated in Ramadi so this is their attempt to save face and strike back at the force that drove them out of town. These murderers don’t care how many civilians are killed as long as they get a headline. Unfortunately, U.S. media seems to reinforce this behavior. One thing is certain, the people of Anbar will never accept al Qaeda and the police here will continue to fight back regardless of the danger they face. These attacks only strengthen their resolve.
We are currently conducting a large operation to clear terrorists out of the Abu Bali tribal region east of Ramadi. This area developed into a terrorist safe haven after we cleared Ramadi. Using coalition forces and ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], we are doing the same, deliberate clearing methods that we used in our previous operations. We have encountered many IED’s (reminds me of [Operation] Murfreesboro [in February-March]) but have cleared the area and are building another new JSS [Joint Security Station]. Almost immediately, the local population asked to start a neighborhood watch, and now these citizens are pointing out caches and IED’s.
We also successfully cleared an area to our south called al Tash. This was another area al Qaeda moved to when we cleared the city. We started getting increased IED attacks from this area so we went and cleared this town and established a JSS. Locals there now want to join the police force, and we haven’t had a single incident down there in about 2 weeks. I think al Qaeda is beginning to get the idea that we don’t like them in the neighborhood.
We are also working very hard with local religious leaders to improve popular support and conditions here in Ramadi. I have been meeting with prominent Sunni clerics from Anbar, and we think we will be able to reopen the main mosque here in Ramadi next week (I’m sure you saw it while you were here—it’s the really big one just north of the Malaab). This will be a huge event since this mosque is the centerpiece of Islamic worship here in Ramadi and has not been in operation for years due to the fighting. We are working religious-leader engagement at every level, and it is really paying off. A couple months ago, about half the mosques in Ramadi were broadcasting anti-coalition messages. Last Friday, there wasn’t a single anti-coalition sermon, and there were even a couple mosques that broadcast a pro-coalition message—I’ve never seen that before in my three tours over here.
Have to get back to work now . . . will give you an update on our efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild in my next email. This is an important aspect of counterinsurgency that will take a little time to explain.
Take care, John.
Rock of the Marne!
John W. Charlton
Camp Ar Ramadi, Iraq
As Colonel Charlton keeps me posted, I will pass along his updates. They are not all likely to be positive. There is a war on, after all, and the enemy remains tenacious and brutal. We mustn’t set unrealistic goals in Ramadi (or anywhere else in Iraq) and then engage in self-flagellation if we don’t achieve them. Anbar, and the rest of Iraq, will remain violent for years, probably decades, to come. The question is whether we can get that violence down to a sustainable level, a level that doesn’t threaten the functioning of Iraq’s emerging government and civil society. So far that’s just what Colonel Charlton and his men have managed to pull off in Ramadi. Even the New York Times is taking notice. But all such accomplishments are fragile.