Anbar, Iraq – Day 4
RAMADI, Iraq — This week, we’ve been told repeatedly about the recent successes in Anbar Province and its capital, Ramadi. Every soldier and Marine we talk to who’s been deployed here before seems genuinely surprised that the level of violence and attacks against the U.S. troops has fallen to virtually zero. At least three officers have told me they’d be willing to walk down the street without body armor on, such is their confidence in improved security. One senior commander is even very keen for me to go and eat ice cream at the market with him.
Interestingly, the American military credits tribal leaders for the recent period of stability. It’s interesting because nobody’s crediting democracy or the much-vaunted electoral process. Nobody’s crediting the Iraqi government. And nobody’s crediting the well-trained and established Iraqi security forces either for restoring law and order.
No, the American military gives credit to a group of (mostly) elderly tribal Sheikhs who — it should be noted — are not democratically elected and are quite literally a law unto themselves.
It’s true — there are large numbers of Iraqi police operating in Ramadi. We’re told many used to be militia fighters, allied to various tribes in the city. They were also allied to Al Qaeda, fighting against American soldiers and Marines just a few months ago. There are undoubtedly American troops deployed in Ramadi right now who have to work alongside Iraqi police officers on a daily basis — police officers who spent the last few years planting roadside bombs, planning suicide attacks and shooting at U.S. troops.
In East Anbar, we met members of the al-Basota tribe. The tribe used to be allied with Al Qaeda, and then in a short space of time changed their minds to become allied with the U.S. As one soldier put it — they “flipped” inside a 48-hour period. Another seasoned sergeant, on his second deployment, told me they could never get any local residents to join the Iraqi police — until that is, their tribal leader gave an order, and suddenly they had more recruits than they knew what to do with. The Sheikh issues instructions, and his tribesmen react.
There’s a lot of concern among the U.S. soldiers and commanders we spoke to about where the loyalties of these police officers really lie. And while the head of the al-Basota tribe is no longer the chief of police, he certainly acts like one. We overheard him asking an American soldier for compensation — it seems one of his tribesmen / police officers had been fired for beating a prisoner. Later, we’re told the Sheikh will indeed get some compensation money, but not as much as he used to receive. What sort of message does that send?
The unusual triangle of mistrust between American forces, Iraqi police and tribal Sheikhs is possibly best summed up by a comment from one U.S. soldier who said to me over breakfast, “I trust them about as far as I could throw a Bradley [fighting vehicle.]”
When you drive around Ramadi, the most striking thing you notice is the lack of residents.
During the worst of the fighting (between Al Qaeda and the tribes on one side … and the U.S. military on the other), thousands of people fled the city. Some Sheikhs and anyone with money left for Jordan and Syria — two countries facing real social and financial problems due to the influx of Iraq refugees. If Ramadi residents couldn’t afford to go abroad, they left to stay with relatives in other parts of the country.
The exodus left Ramadi looking like a ghost town. While some people have now returned, it seems like most have not. Entire city blocks lie in rubble, and we drive past street after street of abandoned buildings: apartment blocks and schools, mosques and businesses.
It’s the businesses, which perhaps, stand out the most. There are thousands of small store-fronts all shuttered up. These could be the economic engine, that powers the city: but there are no customers, no sales, no profits — so therefore there's no point in returning.
On a micro-level, the U.S. military is trying to do what it can to help out. As I mentioned in a previous blog, they pay day laborers $7 per day to clear up enormous piles of garbage and the debris from destroyed buildings. We’ve seen the men toiling during the searing heat of the afternoon. The military hopes for a trickle-down and trickle-up effect: the workers earning their $7 will want to spend it somewhere, and so a small shop might open to cater for them; that store will need suppliers as his sales increase; etc. I’m no Maynard Keynes, but it seems like a sound (if tediously slow) economic theory.
It’s probably not too difficult to start a program of job creation for those who want to work in the city right now: whether as day laborers or police officers or neighborhood watch volunteers. The real test will come if, and when, all the other city residents (the missing 50 percent?) want to come home. They’ll need a place to stay, essential services like water, electricity, sewerage, schools and health care. Most of all, they’ll need security, and that’s when police professionalism and tribal alliances will be put to the test.
It’s one thing to proclaim a success story for a deserted city of ghosts — it’s quite another to maintain that success when everyone comes home.
David Mac Dougall is a freelance reporter for FOX News in Baghdad.