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Recruiting in Ramadi: Attacks, few applicants

The low turnout in Iraqi recruits highlights the problems in filling the army’s ranks in Ramadi, where Sunni residents distrust the Shiite-dominated Iraqi military and fear that joining up will mark them as targets for the insurgency.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Beyond the army recruiting center’s maze of blast walls and barbed wire, a roadside bomb targeted an Iraqi Humvee. From a rooftop across the street, a gunman popped up and took aim, drawing a brief hail of return fire.

In the building next door, a mortar round crashed through the roof.

Nobody ever said recruiting for the Iraqi army would be easy. And by the end of the first army recruiting drive in this insurgent-infested city Monday, just 31 young men had stepped through the door to join up.

The low turnout highlights the difficulty of filling the army’s ranks in Ramadi, where Sunni residents both distrust the Shiite-dominated Iraqi military already deployed here and fear joining up will mark them as insurgent targets.

“For a place like Ramadi, we’re doing well to have any recruits at all,” said U.S. Marine Capt. Selden Hale, a recruiting adviser. “But it’s a start, and it’s progress, whether it’s one (recruit) or 1,000.”

A difficult place
Thousands of Iraqi soldiers are serving in Ramadi and its environs, conducting patrols with U.S. forces and operating independently in some parts of town. But the battalions deployed here are made up mostly of Shiites from Baghdad or south of it, U.S. military officials said. Ramadi is dominated by Sunnis.

Shiite Iraqi soldiers deployed at the recruiting center, an abandoned glass factory, said Ramadi was a tough place to work.

“The people of Ramadi never liked us,” said Sgt. Maj. Ahmed Mohamed, an Iraqi soldier who hails from a southern Shiite town he declined to name. “They need their sons in the security forces here. They need people around who are from their same tribe.”

Aware of the issue and keen to spread the word, U.S. officials said some 400 “invitation cards” to join the army were sent out for distribution to tribal sheiks, government officials and Iraqi army units. Nobody showed up with the cards.

Recruiters in the crosshairs
Turnout for the one-day event may have been hurt because word of mouth didn’t spread far. Authorities did not want to announce the date they’d be receiving candidates, for good reason — insurgents for years have been targeting recruiting centers for both the police and army.

On Monday a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest struck an army recruiting center to the northeast near Tal Afar, killing at least 40 people and wounding 30.

In Ramadi on Jan. 5, a suicide bomber stepped into line during a recruiting drive for police at the glass factory, killing more than 50 people and wounding at least 60 more. U.S. soldiers said some recruits — desperate for work — actually stepped over body parts to get back in line.

“I don’t care if it’s risky or not, I need to support my family,” one of the army candidates, 33-year-old Abdulrahman Farhan Ahmed, said Monday.

Others said they wanted to get both U.S. troops and insurgents out of the city. They want Iraq troops here, they said, but they don’t trust the Iraqi units they see.

“It’s difficult to deal with them or ask them for help because they are strangers. We don’t know them,” 26-year old Adnan Abass said of the Iraqi army units here. “We want the soldiers here to be from Ramadi city, from our own tribes. Maybe then, Ramadi will be peaceful.”

Suspicion a two-way street
Maybe. Suspicion runs both ways. “I wouldn’t trust any of these guys,” said Mohamed, a Shiite, gesturing toward the line of half a dozen Sunni recruits among the 31 allowed to enter.

Two people who stopped by were suspected of trying to gather intelligence about the glass factory for insurgents. Both were detained, blindfolded, questioned and released.

Monday’s would-be recruits were screened by U.S. officials and given literacy tests. American soldiers took down their identities and conducted iris scans to determine whether they had been detained before. They were to be sent east to Habbaniyah for a five-week training course, where they would be screened again by Iraqi authorities.

U.S. officials say the Iraqi army is 111,000-strong, and is expected to reach full-strength of 130,000 next year. Only when they are fully trained and ready, though, will American troops be able to go home. That could easily take years, but progress is being made.

Game for the fight
When a sniper took aim at troops around the glass factory Monday, Iraqi troops ran along blast walls outside, crouching and returning fire. U.S. soldiers participated in the brief gunfight, though some eager to join were told by their commanders to hold back.

“We started off basically spoon-feeding them. Initially, when they were attacked, they’d just hunker down and wait it out,” said U.S. Maj. Edward Dupont. “Now, they’ll take aim, stand and fight, go after the bad guys. A lot of it is training, experience.”

For now, though, some candidates are joining up simply because they want to end violence in Ramadi.

“We would respect the Americans if they brought us security,” said Haithaw Khalaf, 25. “Right now we can’t go out at night. There are a lot of explosions. We can barely send a patient to the hospital on these streets.”