RAMADI, IRAQ – 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 FOXNews.com.
Combat operations are finished in Ramadi. The American military now acts as a peacekeeping force to protect the city from those who recently lost it and wish to return.
It is not, however, completely secured yet.
"Al Qaeda lost their capital," Maj. Lee Peters said, "and the one city that was called the worst in the world. It was their Stalingrad. And they want to come back."
In July and again in August they did try to retake it and lost pitched battles on the shores of Lake Habbaniya and Donkey Island just on the outskirts. They destroyed a bridge over the Euphrates River leading into the city with a dump truck bomb.
Four other bridges in Anbar province also were destroyed in acts of revenge in the countryside by those who no longer have refuge in cities. And just last week Sheik Sattar Abu Risha, the leader of the indigenous Anbar Salvation Council that declared Al Qaeda the enemy, was assassinated by a roadside bomb near his house.
That murder can’t undo the changes in the hearts and minds of the locals. If anything, assassinating a well-respected leader who is widely seen as a savior will only further harden Anbaris against the rough men who would rule them.
"All the tribes agreed to fight Al Qaeda until the last child in Anbar," the sheik’s brother Ahmed told a Reuters reporter.
Whether Anbar province is freshly christened pro-American ground or whether the newly founded Iraqi-American alliance is merely temporary and tactical is hard to say. Whatever the case, the region is no longer a breeding ground for violent anti-American and anti-Iraqi forces.
When the Army soldiers at Blue Diamond took me on their missions I could see why so many reporters write off Ramadi as a place where nothing happens: I was sent along in a convoy of Humvees to the outskirts of the city in a palm grove to attend an adult literacy class for women.
The class was canceled at the last minute, though, so our trip to the palm grove actually was pointless. But Iraqis descended on us from their countryside houses and kept us busy, happily socializing for hours.
Experiences such as this are typical for the infantrymen of the U.S. military but extraordinary for a civilian like me who isn’t accustomed to casually hanging out with Arabs in Iraq’s notorious Sunni Triangle.
I was greeted by friendly Iraqis on the streets of Baghdad every day, but the atmosphere in Ramadi was different. I am not exaggerating when I describe their attitude toward Americans as euphoric.
Grown Iraqi men hugged American soldiers and Marines.
Young men wanted me to take their pictures with their arms around American soldiers and Marines. The Americans seemed slightly bored with the idea, but the Iraqis were enthusiastic.
Children hugged State Department civilian reconstruction team leader Donna Carter.
Ramadi has changed so drastically from the terrorist-infested pit that it was as recently as April 2007 that I could hardly believe what I saw. The sheer joy on the faces of these Iraqis was unmistakable. They weren’t sullen in the least, and it was pretty obvious that they were not just pretending to be friendly or going through the hospitality motions.
"It was nothing we did," said Marine Lt. Col. Drew Crane who was visiting for the day from Fallujah. "The people here just couldn’t take it anymore."
What he said next surprised me even more than what I was seeing.
"You know what I like most about this place?" he said.
"What’s that?" I said.
"We don’t need to wear body armor or helmets," he said.
I was poleaxed. Without even realizing it, I had taken off my body armor and helmet. I took my gear off as casually as I do when I take it off after returning to the safety of the base after patrolling. We were not in the safety of the base and the wire. We were safe because we were in Ramadi.