Iraq Journal: Anbar Awakens, Part I

Michael J. Totten is an independent journalist reporting on the war in Iraq. Here is a portion of his latest journal entry provided exclusively for

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After spending some time in and around Baghdad with the U.S. military, I visited Ramadi — the capital of Iraq’s notoriously convulsive and violent Anbar province — and breathed an unlikely sigh of relief.

Only a few months ago, Ramadi was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It was another “Fallujah,” and certainly the most dangerous place in Iraq. Today, to the astonishment of everyone — especially the U.S. Army and Marines — it is perhaps the safest city in all of Iraq outside of Kurdistan.

In August 2006, the Marine Corps — arguably the least defeatist institution in all of America — wrote off Ramadi as irretrievably lost. They weren’t crazy for thinking it. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq had moved in to fight the Americans, and they were welcomed as liberators by a substantial portion of the local population.

I wrote recently that Baghdad, while dangerous and mind-bogglingly dysfunctional, isn’t as bad as it looks on TV. Almost everywhere I have been in the Middle East is more “normal” than it appears in the media.

Nowhere is this more true than in Beirut, but it is true to a lesser extent in Baghdad as well. Baghdad isn’t a normal city, but it appears normal in most places most of the time.

Ramadi, in my experience, is the great exception. Ramadi was worse than it appeared in the media.

Baghdad suffers from political paralysis, a low-grade counterinsurgency, and a very slow-motion civil war. It doesn’t look or feel like a war most of the time, although it does sometimes. What happened in Ramadi wasn’t like that. It wasn’t the surreal sort-of war that still simmers in Baghdad. Two American colonels in charge of the area compared the battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad.

“We were engaged in hours-long full-contact kinetic warfare with enemies in fixed positions,” Army Maj. Lee Peters said.

“There were areas where our odds of being attacked were 100 percent,” Army Capt. Jay McGee told me. “Literally hundreds of IEDs created virtual minefields.”

“The whole area was enemy controlled,” Marine Lt. Jonathan Welch said. “If we went out for even a half-hour we were shot at, and we were shot at accurately. Sometimes we took casualties and were not able to inflict casualties. We didn’t know where they were shooting from.”

Anbar province is the heart of Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, and Ramadi is its capital. Iraq has 18 provinces, but until recently almost a third of all U.S. casualties were in Anbar alone. About 1.3 million people live there, mostly along the Euphrates River, and roughly a third live in Ramadi. Most of the rest live in the also notorious and now largely secured cities of Haditha, Hit and Fallujah.

I haven’t visited the other cities yet because I wanted to begin in the province’s largest and most important city. Ramadi isn’t the most important solely because it’s the capital or because it’s the largest. It is also the most important because Al Qaeda declared it “The Capital of the Islamic State of Iraq.”

“You have to understand what every side’s end state is in Iraq to really understand what’s going on,” said Capt. McGee, in his military intelligence headquarters at the Blue Diamond base just north of the city.

An enormous satellite photo of Ramadi and the surrounding area that functioned as a map took up a whole wall. Local streets were relabeled by the military and given very American names: White Sox Road, Eisenhower Road and Pool Hall Street for example.

“The ideology of AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is to establish the Islamic Caliphate in Iraq,” McGee said. “In order for them to be successful they must control the Iraqi population through either support or coercion.”

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