View Full Version : U.S. reaffirms presence in Iraqi city

03-10-07, 05:35 PM
U.S. reaffirms presence in Iraqi city

By ROBERT H. REID, Associated Press Writer

The top U.S. commander in Iraq strolled through the streets of this dusty Euphrates River city Saturday, snacking on ice cream and promoting cooperation between Americans and Iraqis in a Sunni Arab community where insurgents have been driven out before — only to return.

Gen. David Petraeus visited Hit, scene of bloody fights with insurgents for the last three years, to affirm U.S. support for a nascent city administration and to deliver a message that U.S. troops will remain here until Iraqi forces are genuinely ready to provide their own security.

To demonstrate his confidence, Petraeus, accompanied by dozens of armed U.S. troops and Iraqi policemen, strolled down the main street, stopping to buy ice cream from a vendor and wandering through the city market, where snipers were taking potshots at U.S. patrols just months ago.

"Iraq presents its own complex set of challenges and you have to do one city at a time," Petraeus said as he beamed at hesitant crowds and delivered Arabic greetings to small groups of young boys who stared at the entourage from the curb.

Few of the Iraqis returned the greeting and most kept back, perhaps intimidated by the stern-faced gun-toting Iraqi policemen who appeared keen to make sure nothing went awry during the visit.

Nevertheless, the fact that a senior American general could walk through the public market in a Sunni city with such a bloody past indicates a degree of progress which U.S. commanders are eager to exploit. It is key to the new U.S. strategy of clearing areas of insurgents and then remaining to promote economic and quality of life projects. In the past, Iraqi forces have failed to maintain control once the Americans were gone.

Last month, Iraqi police backed by U.S. troops swept through the city of about 120,000 people about 100 miles northwest of Baghdad, arresting suspected insurgents and establishing three new police stations in the downtown area.

Since then, the number of violent incidents — mostly bombings and shootings — has dropped from an average of five per day to about 1.3 a day, the lowest level since March 2006, according to Lt. Col. Douglas Crissman, commander of the battalion that took part in the sweep.

The plan is for U.S. and Iraqi checkpoints around the city to turn Hit (pronounced Heet) into a "gated community" free of insurgents, Crissman said.

To convince the locals that better days are ahead, the U.S. plans to fly in $15 million to float the local bank, which will enable retired government employees and soldiers to start receiving pensions and provide cash to bolster the economy.

The Americans are also encouraging the Shiite-run government in Baghdad to pay more attention to mostly Sunni Anbar province, including authorizing funds to pay for the extra police. But U.S. forces have claimed similar successes in the past in Hit, only to see gains lost because of a lack of enough troops in the province, a vast area that stretches from the western edge of Baghdad to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Despite a recent cleanup campaign, the city still bears the scars of conflict, including concrete barriers around a local mosque from which insurgents used to fire at U.S. positions.

In early 2004, the Marines took over responsibility for western Anbar but had to shift forces eastward when violence flared in the provincial capital of Ramadi and in Fallujah. With the remaining Marines overstretched, Hit fell under insurgent control and became a waystation for weapons and fighters entering the country from Syria.

Marines worked with a local Sunni tribe, the Abu Nimur, to recruit police and Iraqi soldiers and were well on their way to establishing Hit as a model of U.S.-Iraqi cooperation.

But U.S. units were moved again from Hit to support the siege of Fallujah in November 2004. Insurgents returned, killing policemen, intimidating residents and ambushing American convoys. The son of the current police commander, Col. Hamid Ibrahim al-Jaza, was also beheaded on a soccer field. Hit has remained a flashpoint ever since.

To heal the wounds, U.S. officers are promoting community development plans, including a new wing of a hospital, and are recruiting hundreds of police to bolster the city's 827-member force. The Americans are also encouraging the Shiite-run government in Baghdad to pay more attention to mostly Sunni Anbar, including authorizing funds to pay for the extra police.