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thedrifter
04-01-06, 07:38 AM
AP Blog From Ramadi, Iraq
By The Associated Press
Fri Mar 31, 3:40 PM ET

Todd Pitman, who is West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press, is embedded with U.S. Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Regiment in Ramadi, Iraq.

MONDAY, March 31, 2 p.m. local

RAMADI, Iraq

Last night I went on a night patrol with a U.S. Marine unit in western Ramadi. We spent a lot of time running down streets and taking temporary cover in the courtyards of private Iraqi homes. This was an upscale neighborhood near one of the city's most IED-ridden roads. These are villas with tall columns, flowered-yards full of palm trees. It was a moonless night.

The 3/8 Marines are relatively new. They've been here a few weeks, and they're getting used to what all troops around here call their "battle space."

The Marines entered about half a dozen villas, opening the front gates without asking the owners inside, and I was surprised that in most cases, the families didn't seem to mind. Some home owners didn't even bother to look outside, though they must have heard the Marines come in. One woman came into the kitchen to see who was around, glanced over and walked back inside. At another man looked through the window and did the same.

Others were good-natured, actually welcoming the Marines. We spent an hour with one family — a mother, a father and four sons and daughters. They were genuinely at ease, smiling, joking with their heavily armed visitors, bedecked with heavy armored jackets and night-vision goggles atop their helmets. The family's sandals were outside the door; the Marines trampled dirt-laden boots over a red carpet. One of the sons motioned at footprints on the carpet, shook his head, and smiled. One of the Marines had picked up beginning Arabic during a previous deployment outside Fallujah, and he was able to converse in simple sentences with them. In English, they said they had been watching the Oprah Winfrey show.

I asked one Marine: why doesn't anybody mind when they come bounding in? Wouldn't you be shocked to see soldiers hopping over the wall of your house? They're used to it, he said. Three years of insurgency has meant the citizens of Ramadi have gotten very used to Marines hopping into their yards for a bit of cover. The threat? Snipers and random small arms fire — you don't want to be exposed any more than you have to.

It was a quiet night, at least by Ramadi standards. Though at one house — the owner was out — the silence was broken by a loud boom. We could see a thick plum of white smoke rising about 300 to 400 meters (yards) away. I learned later that a roadside bomb had gone off as an American explosives ordnance disposal unit was arriving on the scene to disarm it. There were no injuries.

The base I am staying at is relatively small, at least compared to others. The main base in Ramadi is gigantic. It has a huge dining hall and scores of sandbagged buildings. The night I left my tent, one soldier slept in his bed with an M-16 poking out of his black sleeping bag. Another soldier lay awake reading a book called "The Arab Mind."

At this Marine base, there are guard towers along the sides, a basketball court, and lots of sandbags. There is one small internet room for the troops. I'm filing this via a laptop and satellite phone on a sun-blasted concrete ledge outside.

Yesterday, insurgents fired shots at a base watch-post, prompting the Marine stationed there to repost with three grenade rounds from a MK-19. Later, one Marine shot a man who laid a bag on a main road and started running off. A civilian vehicle stopped and picked him up afterward, apparently taking him to a hospital.

Trash is strewn along a lot of roads here, and there is always the threat that inside some of them are wires and bombs. U.S. vehicles sweep the streets constantly for them. Last night, the Marines avoided one awkward looking trash pile.

Iraqis outnumber Marines two to one here. They stay in separate quarters on the base. In a few months, they will take over this base and Marines will move elsewhere. Today they will roll out into one of the worst parts of the city for the first time in Iraqi army Humvees, with Marines close by.

___Todd Pitman

MONDAY, March 27, 11 p.m. local

RAMADI, Iraq

Today I went with Iraqi and U.S. troops to an abandoned glass factory that was converted into an army recruiting center for the day. This marks the first time the army is trying to recruit in Ramadi — a dangerous place to live that is crawling with insurgents. It's a tough place to find guys to join up.

This same glass factory was hit in January by a suicide bomber during a police recruiting drive. Dozens were killed and dozens more were wounded. You'd think that would stifle anybody's urge to join up, but several U.S. officials said some people actually stepped over body parts to get back in line that day.

Iraqi army and police recruiting centers have long been a favorite target of insurgents; they were being hit even before the handover of authority to the Iraqi government in June 2004. I was always amazed that they would line up again and again, knowing they could be targeted. Many do it simply to get a job.

The recruiting drive in Ramadi ended with only 31 people coming through. U.S. military officials had hoped for hundreds, but said even this small turnout was a step in the right direction. It is Ramadi, afterall, a heart of the insurgency.

Iraqi army officers said they'd find it hard to trust these new guys. They suspected them of being insurgents, or at least, some of them. Two other men who came by were suspected of trying to scope out the glass factory instead. They were detained, blindfolded, inspected and later, cleared and released.

In Ramadi, the recruits I spoke to said their main objective was getting a job. You have to support your family. But they also mentioned something else: they wanted local people patrolling Ramadi; they don't want U.S. troops doing it, and they don't want the Iraqi army battalions already deployed here doing it because they see them as foreigners, too. Most of the Iraqis deployed around the glass factory for example, were Shiite Muslims from Baghdad or southern Iraq. Ramadi is a mostly Sunni Muslim city.

Security was stepped up because insurgent attacks were expected. And they came, though by Ramadi standards, they were insignificant. A roadside bomb struck an Iraqi army humvee, and small arms fire followed. A gunman on a rooftop popped up, sparking a hail of return fire from both U.S. and Iraqi forces. Some anxious U.S. troops who wanted to get in on the brief gunfight were actually told by their commanders to hold back, and let the Iraqis do the return firing. Both did. Later, there was a loud boom nearby. A soldier told me a mortar round smashed through the building next door.

In Ramadi, at least outside the glass factory, there were no casualties I heard of. To the northeast near Tal Afar, though, a suicide bomber wearing a vest of explosives killed 40 people and wounded 30 others at an army recruiting office.

There is a lot of talk about progress in training this army, and I have to say, progress is definitely being made. I saw Iraqi troops training a year and a half ago in Tikrit. The guys I saw then were just starting out, fumbling with their guns, clearly not too interested in the duty ahead. U.S. advisers were rolling their eyes. A lot of the Iraqis quit.

But a lot of them stayed with it, and to see them today, you see a new level of professionalism. They're building the army from the bottom up. It's not easy, and there's clearly a long way to go. They need leadership. They need more training. And they need more equipment. Members of the Iraqi battalion I spoke to told me they still lack basics. They share flak vests. They either don't have, or don't have enough of: sniper rifles, mortars and night-vision goggles. These were the same complaints they made when I patrolled with them in Baghdad in 2004. Back then they complained insurgents had heavier weapons than they did.

Today, these guys said the same. Though they operate independently in some areas in Ramadi, they rely on U.S. forces for just about everything else: medical support, logistic support, firepower support. It won't be easy to fill all those gaps. One Iraqi soldier told me that if the Americans left, so would he.

___Todd Pitman

Ellie