Please don't go, Haditha mayor tells U.S. Marines

By Tony Perry

Los Angeles Times

HADITHA, Iraq -- The weather was desert hot. But the Pepsi was nicely cold. After acting the role of the gracious host, the mayor here made his point.

"The people of Germany and Japan would not have made progress without the Americans," Mayor Abdul Hakim M. Rasheed told the U.S. Marine officers who recently came to his heavily guarded home. "The people of Iraq deserve the same."

The Marines, including three generals, assured Rasheed that they had no plans to abandon him and his city. Don't be distracted by the political debate in Washington, they urged Rasheed, who listened and nodded.

Since 2004, Iraq's western al-Anbar province -- the center of the Sunni-led insurgency -- has been the most dangerous part of the country for U.S. forces. But Marines here have been experiencing a respite in recent weeks. Attacks against Marines and soldiers are at their lowest point in four years.

In the six weeks since his battalion arrived, Lt. Col. James Bierman, commanding officer of the 1st regiment, 3rd infantry, has seen only five of his troops wounded and none killed; the battalion that preceded his suffered 24 killed and 230 wounded in seven months.

But Marine commanders are convinced the current lull will pass. They predict a counteroffensive by insurgents in the Euphrates River valley, possibly including attacks on civilians and U.S. forces. In recent days, insurgents have staged high-profile attacks in Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar. Before the violence escalates, Marine commanders are trying to take advantage of the quiet to reassure their allies and step up operations.

In 2004, Marines twice pulled out of Haditha to fight in Fallujah. Both times, insurgents took bloody revenge on residents who had cooperated with the Americans. Some were rounded up, marched to the town's soccer field and executed.

As Marine commanders reassure Rasheed and others that they will not be abandoned again, their strategy can be described as "more": more engagement with tribal sheiks, more efforts to train Iraqi security forces, more troops, more patrols to find and rout members of al-Qaida in Iraqi and other insurgent groups, and more positioning of Marines amid the civilian populace. In case fighting spreads along the Euphrates, a Navy river patrol squadron has been moved to the area.

The Marines say the insurgent force is splintering and factions are feuding, but that the movement remains violent. A weapons cache discovered recently included a French-made surface-to-surface missile.

A leading tribal sheik, friendly to the U.S., was killed recently by four gunmen who found their way to his home on a tiny island in the Euphrates. The sheik's picture now hangs in Rasheed's office. The mayor refers to him as a "martyr."

The insurgency is "a wounded animal," Bierman said. "Wounded animals are always dangerous."

Many former officers of the Iraqi army and Baath party members live here, and the towns along the Euphrates valley provide a route for insurgents traveling from the Syrian border toward Baghdad.

"The enemy wants the Triad back," Bierman added, referring to the area that includes Haditha and the nearby cities of Barwanah and Haqlajniyah. "This area is too important to him -- he's going to come back."

For months last year, Marines engaged in nightly firefights here. Finally, after berms were built to restrict traffic into the city, including the crowded marketplace, the insurgents retreated.

Marine commanders say their success in reducing insurgent violence in Haditha and other areas of al-Anbar is an indication that a "surge" of troops, like that being tried by the Army in Baghdad, can succeed. But they note that a surge is a beginning, not an end.

Rasheed indicated that he remains concerned that the Americans, in their haste to leave, might leave behind a City Council whose members are insurgents in disguise, waiting for the U.S. to depart.

"We have to be careful," Rasheed said, through an interpreter.

This time, it was the Marines' turn to listen.