View Full Version : 'Mr. Wilson' finally gets out of Ramadi

07-20-06, 06:27 AM
'Mr. Wilson' finally gets out of Ramadi

By ANTONIO CASTANEDA, Associated Press Writer
Wed Jul 19, 1:40 PM ET

"Mr. Wilson" is gone. When U.S. tanks first rolled into this most violent of Iraqi cities, the Iraqi family man stayed put. He hung in there for three more years as neighboring shops and buildings were pounded into rubble. He stayed even after U.S. Marines, failing to recognize him as he drove home one day, opened fire and injured him in the leg.

When virtually everyone else fled the heart of downtown Ramadi, he stood his ground. He became a rare familiar face to young U.S. Marine lookouts who knew little about him by a nickname of unknown origin, inherited from past deployments: "Mr. Wilson."

The Marines would target him in their sights as he approached their base — then ease off when they realized it was just Mr. Wilson coming home. They came to respect him as a harmless, stubborn man who wanted to stay put in a white, single-story house that unfortunately lay across the street from government offices besieged by insurgents.

Marines heading home would brief their replacements to be alert for strangers but leave Mr. Wilson alone, and, when they left, to pass on his story to the next batch of troops.

No more. About two months ago Mr. Wilson, his wife and daughters left for safer parts of the city of 400,000, leaving behind blocks of shattered homes from which hundreds more had already fled.

Marines think the family still lives in Ramadi since the daughters have been back several times to recover leftover possessions from their former home.

In the vast scale of suffering and displacement the country has experienced, Mr. Wilson's departure is the tiniest of blips. But it's a vivid symbol of the hardships faced by the U.S.-led coalition and the elected Iraqi government in restoring peace and quiet for the countless other Mr. Wilsons of Iraq.

"I think he just got sick of living here with all the attacks," said Lance Cpl. Sean Fitzgerald, 21, of Osteen, Fla., who used to regularly see him from a rooftop post. "He had young daughters. He probably didn't want them to live in danger anymore."

There could have been many things making up his mind — the rumors of an imminent coalition onslaught to drive out the insurgents, or the militants using his block to launch attacks on the U.S.-guarded compound that houses the provincial governor, or the rocket-propelled grenades that would swoosh by Mr. Wilson's front door.

Or perhaps the simple realization that his neighborhood was dead.

The area around the government center was once a busy hub, sitting along the main highway from Syria and Jordan to Baghdad. There were restaurants, banks, a high school, government offices, an Internet cafe.

But the war slowly devoured it all.

Gunbattles along the highway through the city punched holes into buildings. Hundreds of roadside bombs went off, and U.S. warplanes targeted insurgents with dozens of air strikes, bringing down whole floors of multistory office blocks.

The Rasheed Hotel became a nest for insurgent snipers and was devastated by a 500-pound bomb last year.

A U.S. tank blew away the minaret of a nearby mosque where insurgents had been firing. An agricultural bank to the east was shut down. Marines walking into an empty high school found a hidden bomb.

Insurgents peering through a hole in a wall at the Health Ministry would help target Marine positions — until airstrikes pummeled the building. Marines fired rockets into the Education Ministry a block to the west of government center.

The phones don't work. Roadside bombs have damaged water pipes, reducing supply in some areas to a trickle. The public electricity supply runs only 4-5 hours per day.

The Marines now have permission to fire mortars at some areas around government center, having ascertained that no civilians are left within 1,500 feet of it.

"We're not as restricted with all these houses being cleared out. We don't have to worry as much about collateral damage. But we're still concerned beyond that," said Lance Cpl. John McConnell, 24, of New York.

The U.S. military plans to clear some of the wasteland around government center to build a more stable home for the municipality, U.S. officials said.

The Marines still remember Mr. Wilson's routine. A polite, bearded man thought to be in his 50s, he usually wore the black robe favored by Sunni Arab men. He would slow his car, flash his headlights, honk his horn, and wave at the Marines, who would let his car — and none other — pass through.

Marines said they tried to keep him out of the crossfire during battles that sometimes lasted hours, and to visit him to take care of the family's needs. But as soon as they left insurgents would question him about the visits, said Sgt. John Strobridge, 21, or Orlando, Fla., who supervises Marines in the lookout post overlooking Mr. Wilson's home.

"Until this city starts sticking up for itself, and people start fighting back, there's only so much we can do," Strobridge said.

Earlier this year Mr. Wilson drove home as usual — but this time in a different car, unfamiliar to the Marines. They fired warning shots in front of the vehicle, and shrapnel ricocheted into his leg.

He was angry at first, Marines said, but later acknowledged he should have told them that he was driving a different car that day. Marines, worried about his condition, even sent a patrol to check on him.

And then he was gone.

"I think he just finally gave in. There's only so much a person can take," said McConnell. "I'm surprised he stayed as long as he did."

Marines who stand post around his empty home on hot afternoons say they only see about a dozen pedestrians or fewer on the surrounding streets. The silence is interrupted only by gunfire, explosions and the loudspeakers calling Muslims to prayer in safer parts of Ramadi.

Outside Mr. Wilson's home sit the charred frames of three cars.

Marines recently searched the darkened house in case insurgents were using it. All they found were some clothes and abandoned furniture.