Remembering Ramadi as Iraq suffers again

Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.
Ramadi looked apocalyptic when the Sunni insurgency raged there in 2006.

I fought off tears as I read Sunday’s New York Times. The news from Iraq was horrifying.

A vicious civil war seems imminent as fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) point their guns toward Baghdad.

They are men who make al-Qaeda look like nice guys. And the Taliban, wimps.

They have taken over much of Nineveh province — Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tal Afar. They are now taking aim at Samarra and threatened to destroy a historic Shiite shrine there. An attack on that shrine in 2006 unleashed sectarian bloodshed. Entire neighborhoods in Baghdad and other places were ethnically cleansed.

I remember how hard it was after that to make amends.

I was in Anbar province when the Sons of Iraq program was just getting off the ground. It began with Sunni Sheik Sattar al-Rishawi who helped launch the Anbar Awakening, a movement to stop the extreme violence that had gripped Iraq’s only Sunni-majority province.

I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi "the heart of darkness."
I patrolled with 1-9 Infantry soldiers who dubbed one neighborhood in Ramadi “the heart of darkness.”

Cities like Fallujah and Ramadi looked apocalyptic. I don’t think I saw a single building in Ramadi that had been spared from bullet holes.

I walked the streets of a Ramadi neighborhood called Melaab with Able Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers called the place “the heart of darkness.”

When I asked residents what it was like to live there, they glided their right index finger across their throats. Sunni insurgents brazenly beheaded people in public and distributed videos of the executions.

Ramadi, back then, was the perhaps most dangerous place on Earth. And it was widely believed that the sheiks of Anbar were supporting the insurgents.

Then they began withdrawing that tacit support. I sat with Sheik al-Rishawi’s brother, Ahmed, to understand why his family and others had come around to helping the Americans establish peace.

He showed me his camels (see the photo at the top of my blog), sipped sweet chai and told me the people were just weary from that kind of extreme violence. His own father and brothers were killed by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

He invited U.S. commanders into his palatial home and talked strategy with them. Such friendships had seemed improbable just months ago but the sheiks were determined to bring peace.

From that movement came the Sons of Iraq. Insurgents who once pointed their guns at Americans and their Shiite brethren began to help keep the killing out of their territories. During the so-called surge in U.S. troops, the Sons of Iraq program was in full swing. The Americans paid them $10 a day to keep terrorism at bay.

When the Anbar Awakening first took hold, an uneasy calm came to Ramadi. I went to a polling station where people were voting in a city council election. Amazingly, there was no gunfire that day.

Outside, Capt. Jamey Gadoury, commander of 1-9 Inftantry’s Charlie Company, took his helmet and flak jacket off. We shared lamb and rice with community leaders and members of the Iraqi police.

There were three ways to deal with insurgents, Gadoury told me as he tore a piece of bread and scooped up a chunk of meat. “You either want to kill them, make them go away or get them on your side.”

“So what happened to the Sunni insurgents here?” I asked.

Gadoury stopped chewing and grinned, as though he were onto some awful secret.

“You’re eating with them, ” he told me.

I looked around and suddenly lost my appetite.

I think of my days in Anbar now as I read the tragedy unfolding in Iraq. All that ingenuity to befriend the enemy and make peace. Where did it all go?

Many have blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for stirring Iraq’s cauldron of ethnic strife. Others have blamed President Barack Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops prematurely.

I won’t go into all the reasons I think that violence has come back with a venomous vengeance — I’ll save that for a later post.

I will only say this: my heart is broken.

Nine years

The United States invaded Iraq nine years ago. On this anniversary, more violence.

A string of deadly car bombings rocked Iraq Tuesday. Forty-three people died; 206 others were injured. The dead included a pregnant woman in Fallujah when bombs exploded around a house belonging to a police officer.

Authorities blamed al Qaeda in Iraq, though no one claimed responsibility. The attacks came a week before an Arab League summit in Baghdad, the first such high-level diplomatic meeting since the United States made its exit in December.

Six years ago, on the third anniversary of the war, I was in Baghdad with a Georgia brigade about to return home after a grueling yearlong tour. They had seen the worst of the fighting and constantly wondered what they had accomplished. At night, they said, they lay in their cots and tried to think of tangible ways they had made a difference. Often, they came up empty.

That was the frustration of American soldiers who could not distinguish battle lines nor chalk up clear victories in their war.

The Iraqis I knew kept asking when it would get better. Why was the greatest nation on earth unable to provide basic security for Iraqis? Why did they invade if they could not make things better? 

By 2006, the frustrations had set in so deep that I even heard some Iraqis say they longed for the days of Saddam Hussein. At least they could send their children to school without worrying about a bomb exploding under their feet.

Now, it has been nine years. The bombings have not stopped.

Levels of violence are certainly down from the height of the near civil war following the 2003 invasion. But the dominance of the Shiites has left minority Sunnis feeling threatened and weak — and ripe for recruitment by terrorist groups.

The United States succeeded in regime change in Iraq but today I am not sure what the future looks like. The last American soldiers crossed the border into Kuwait last December, leaving behind them a nation in flux. There is still no formal government and plenty of ethnic tension. There is still no peace and an omnipresent threat of all-out civil war erupting.

Today, I think of the Iraqi people and wish them prosperity and peace. I also think of all the American men and women who served in uniform. I hope their efforts will not be in vain.