Formerly Al Qaeda — Sheikh Jassim Now Helps U.S. Forces

Day 3

ANBAR, Iraq — We’ve said goodbye to the Marines at Outpost Iron, and moved from southern Ramadi to eastern Ramadi to continue our embed with 1-9 Infantry Battalion.

Arriving at the U.S. Army’s Camp Corrigedor, the first thing you notice is the dust. There’s inches of fine powdered sand on the ground, making the predominant color here beige. It gets everywhere — especially inside camera equipment. And, on top of the dust, it’s another hot day. The temperature is now routinely 120 degrees, if not higher. It’s tough to stay outside and keep hydrated.

The part of Ramadi we’ve moved to is on the edge of the city. It’s where the downtown buildings give way to more palm groves and fields. People here still live a very traditional tribal way of life – they are Sunnis — and in this part of the city, Sheikh Jassim is one of the most influential and important people.

Not so long ago, Sheikh Jassim was a wanted man — one of the “high value targets” on the military’s most wanted list. We’re told he commanded a group of loyal militia fighters and teamed up with Al Qaeda elements to conduct operations against U.S. troops. That could mean planting a roadside bomb or shooting soldiers on patrol or sanctioning a suicide bomb attack.

But at some point, Sheikh Jassim wanted an end to the violence, and an end to his alliance with Al Qaeda. He became a target himself. Al Qaeda killed some teenagers from Sheikh Jassim’s tribe, cut off one boy’s head, and sent it to Jassim’s home in a box. They also killed some other relatives and dragged the bodies through the streets of east Ramadi. There’s probably no single incident which made Jassim change his mind about working with Al Qaeda; more likely it was a combination of events, which culminated in him switching sides.

We had the chance to meet with and interview Sheikh Jassim at an Iraqi police station. He arrived on time in a police truck, very smartly dressed in white robes. He described his fight against Al Qaeda, but never mentioned any actions which might have targeted U.S. troops also. He seemed genuinely committed to working with the Americans and has seen the benefits of cooperation: with the security situation under control, the reconstruction projects can begin. That has always been the mantra of the coalition forces — I’m always just amazed it’s taken so long for many of the people here to see that, and make it happen.

Very kindly — and inevitably — Sheikh Jassim invited us to dinner at his home. He told me I should taste Iraqi kebabs. It would have been a nice end to the day, but light was fading fast and we all wanted to get back to Camp Corrigedor before it got too dark so we had to decline.

Sheikh Jassim clearly holds the key to success in this part of Ramadi. He’s a powerful man, and I suspect the police officers who used to be part of his private militia would still take orders from him (and not their chain of command) in a fight. The soldiers we spoke to were pretty candid about Sheikh Jassim, saying how strange it was to be holding him in such high esteem, when previously they had orders to arrest him. But that’s sometimes how it works in Iraq. Old enemies become new friends. Alliances falter and new ones are forged. And Sheikh Jassim himself, although elderly, is still a force to be reckoned with. I asked him if he’d taken part in the battles against al-Qaeda. “Let me assure you” he answered with a smile “I was personally involved in every aspect of the fighting.” And I don’t doubt him for a second.

Day 2

We’re still at Outpost Iron with 2nd Battalion 5th Marines, living in a stone building that used to be part of an old Bedouin village, just south of Ramadi. We’re sharing the room with two Marines — Andrew Martin and Jeremy Lowe.

Martin and Lowe have become addicted to "Grey’s Anatomy." During our stay at Outpost Iron we’ve been subjected to all of season two, and most of season three. Before this embed I’d never watched the show. Now, after repeated exposure, I’m keen to find out if Meredith and Derek ever find true love, if Izzie gets over Denny's death, and whether George can handle a stable relationship or not. You get sucked in pretty quickly!

While editing some video late last night, cameraman Pete Rudden suddenly jumped about six feet in the air. Something had scuttled into our room underneath the door. The Marines instantly identified it as a camel spider. The camel spider is legendary around these parts. They’re reputed to climb on your face at night, inject you with a type of local anaesthetic, and eat your flesh. Well, that’s what the Marines told us at least.

This particular camel spider was hand-sized, and extremely quick. The Marines chased it around the room, while Pete and I watched from as safe a distance as possible. Finally, the spider was trapped, and the Marines used a can of cold compressed air to shock it. Apparently, the camel spiders don’t much care for the cold. After the usual photographs were taken, one of the Marines bravely stomped on the poor insect, putting us all out our misery. Nobody slept much last night, fearing giant camel spiders would numb our extremities and slowly eat them.

Apart from watching TV and killing spiders, we’ve been spending a lot of time on the streets of Ramadi. Today was the regular district council meeting for the city’s south-central area. I’ve been to these meetings before. They can be very colorful, very noisy, and very long. An assorted cast of characters showed up, many in traditional tribal robes. Among them was Sheikh Khattab — a guy in his late 20s who gets his authority through his elderly father, a revered sheikh in Ramadi.

Sheikh Khattab is a little unorthodox. He was one of the first leaders to join forces with the U.S. military in this part of the city, after Al Qaeda burned him out of his own home. Now, he lives on a compound shared with the Marines and basically runs the local police station. We had the chance to talk with him, and he’s very passionate about believing the way forward for Ramadi is to work together with coalition forces. It’s a message being heard more and more often in Ramadi, after the “Anbar Awakening” movement decided last year the best way forward was to kick out Al Qaeda. It marked a real turning point in fighting in Anbar Province, and Ramadi in particular.

After the meeting was over, we had the chance again to film in the street, with the Marines of Whisky Company providing security. Peace brings prosperity to Ramadi, and businesses are cautiously starting to open up again. We found one restaurant called The Desert Café, which was selling rotisserie chicken and paid $10 for a whole chicken, wrapped up in flat bread. We filmed the whole process for a story, and ended up giving the hot chicken to a crowd of children who had gathered round to watch us work. We wanted the kids to share the food among themselves, but one told me he would take it and give it to his family. The Desert Café has only been open for a week, but already there’s competition. Right across the street, The Date Palm Restaurant opened just a few days ago. The owner also sells rotisserie chicken, but his menu has the advantage of also selling lamb kebabs.

Ramadi is starting to look like any normal town in the Middle East. It’s difficult to imagine this was the self-declared capital for Al Qaeda’s Islamic Republic of Iraq (sic) just a few short months ago. But of course permanent change doesn’t just happen overnight … and it will take a lot more restaurants opening up before all of the city’s former residents are tempted back home.

Day 1

At this time of year, the heat in Anbar province is relentless. The temperature today rose to 130 degrees — 105 in the shade. By noon, the sun scorches everything it touches, and even the scorpions run for shade.

I’m spending ten days embedded with 2nd Battalion 5th Marines in Ramadi, along with cameraman Pete Rudden and producer Martin Francis. We’ve already spent 24 hours at Outpost Iron in the south of the city visiting Whisky Company, who run missions across the poorest parts of the city.

Outpost Iron used to be part of a small Bedouin village. Three years ago there was fierce fighting here and some of the Marines would patrol the area then, which has become their home now. We’re told that the Bedouin mostly just want to farm, fish, and raise their animals. But they’re deeply religious, so Al Qaeda had some success recruiting them to their ranks. They’re still pretty wary of the marines, even though Al Qaeda has (for now) been soundly beaten in Ramadi.

This is not the worst place I’ve stayed out in the field in Iraq — far from it. The Marines have gone above and beyond to make Outpost Iron livable. They’ve strung up camouflage nets to provide as much protection from the sun as possible. A recently installed generator provides pretty adequate air conditioning in most of the buildings. One ingenious Marine even built gym equipment and a sign that reads “Muscle Beach Ramadi” (although most of the workouts happen between 10pm and midnight, when the temperature has fallen).

Of course not all our time is spent inside the camp. Whisky Company’s Commander, Major Al Mendonca, took us out into Ramadi almost as soon as we arrive. His Marines conduct most of their operations on foot, patrolling the streets, meeting local police officers and neighborhood-watch volunteers.

Virtually everywhere we look there’s extreme poverty. Buildings (including Ramadi’s railway station) reduced to massive piles of rubble during the most intense months of fighting. Workers get paid $7 per day to clear up the debris — and they toil even through the hottest part of the day. Major Mendonca takes us to one part of Ramadi called “Widow’s District” where (as the name suggests) a lot of single mothers live. There’s a small canal of raw sewage running down the middle of the street — covered over with a film of green scum. It has been cordoned off by razor wire, but still we see children playing near this filthy breeding ground for germs and disease.

In the past few months, Ramadi has undergone a remarkable transformation. Thanks to the efforts of the Marines and the U.S. Army, Al Qaeda is on the run. The number of violent attacks each day has dropped drastically. Some days only one or two incidents are reported — other days none at all.

Major Mendonca credits a willingness among Ramadi residents to want better things for their city. Tribal elders encouraged their young men to join the police force and work with coalition forces. A sustained campaign to engage Al Qaeda one neighborhood at a time has left them with no safe sanctuary.

Even Ramadi’s mosques have made a change for good. Just two months ago, about half of them were broadcasting anti-coalition messages during Friday prayers. So commanders on the ground started yet another outreach program — to get to know the local Imams. It’s basic diplomacy, and it has paid off. Now, we’re told, every mosque in southern Ramadi preaches either a positive or neutral message on Friday afternoons.

In an idle moment, Major Mendonca tells me he feels safe enough here to walk down the street with minimal security, and to prove his point he takes me for a stroll. The humvees back off, and then it’s just me and the Major walking down a street (with Pete filming everything of course). It was a strange feeling to be so bold. I’m used to going on patrol surrounded by heavily armed soldiers or Marines. Given the levels of violence which still exist across much of the country, it’s not the most natural feeling in the world to see the humvee gunners in the distance, although Major Mendonca assured me they were mere seconds away in the unlikely event of an incident happening.

It might have been a strange experience, but it underlines the great strides forward this city has taken in the last few months. Major Mendonca and his Marines are justifiably confident of the security in the city and excited to be able to show us what it’s like on the ground. And it was a valuable lesson for me too — giving a glimpse of how things could change for the better here.

But all of the sightseeing with Major Mendonca and the men of Whisky Company took its toll. Pale-skinned Scotsmen aren’t supposed to spend three hours walking around in the sun in 130-degree heat, wearing body armor and a helmet. I felt myself fading fast. Back at Outpost Iron, dinner arrived and I poured plenty of re-hydration fluids down my throat. It turns out walking round Ramadi can be thirsty work, and we’ll be doing it all over again tomorrow.

David Mac Dougall is a freelance reporter for FOX News in Baghdad.