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Can election help turn tide against insurgency?

Two days after the Iraqi election, Marines see signs of progress in the deadly battle against insurgents in Al Ansar province.  NBC's Jim Maceda reports from Ramadi.
US Army Police Iraqi Election In Ramadi
An Iraqi commando, right, and a U.S. Army soldier look at a burning Humvee that was hit by an improvised explosive device a block from where voters entered a polling station Sunday in Ramadi.Joe Raedle / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

“I could sit tight right here, until I go home,” quipped one of the Marines in the back of the heavily armored “7-tonner” pickup truck, specially designed to absorb roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

He laughed as he peered over the thick sheets of iron, his weapon locked and loaded as we pulled out of Hurricane Point, in western Ramadi, and headed into the city. “This baby has got to be the safest spot in town!”

The mission was simple, but daunting: To provide security on Election Day.

Two days later, the Marines of the Second Battalion, 5th Regiment see the light at the end of their deployment — only two months left in their seven-month rotation — and some combat troops admit that every four-minute ride from their base to central Ramadi, along a highly exposed road nicknamed “IED Alley,” is getting harder.

Test case for Sunni Triangle
“Ramadi is the Sunni Triangle’s best-kept secret,” said Golf Company's Capt. Chris Perkins, with more than a little irony. “All you hear about is Baghdad or Fallujah. Those are cakewalks compared to this.”

With one other Marine battalion and five Army battalions, the 2/5 Marines patrol one of Iraq’s most hotly contested areas — the 35 square miles around Ramadi, the capital of Al Ansar province and one of only two provinces that the U.S. military deemed could be too dangerous for meaningful elections to take place.

As a result, they believe that the direction of the political winds in Ramadi will largely gauge the direction of Iraq as a whole.

“Ramadi is a test case,” said the military's media briefer, operations officer Maj. Steve Alexander.

“Unlike Fallujah, Ramadi is not an insurgent stronghold. Unlike Baquoba or Samarra,the people of Ramadi have never bought into any system or regime, not even under Saddam (Hussein), who paid off their leaders with huge sums of money and advanced their soldiers up the ranks.

"They are extremely tribal, independent and mostly illiterate. The insurgents try to control them through intimidation. We are trying to win their trust and confidence. The jury is out, and the stakes are extremely high.”

Daily attacks
About 500,000 people live in Ramadi’s rambling, dusty complex of mostly single-floor compounds and palm trees. At least one fortified company of Marines (around 200 troops) patrols the city at any given time.

U.S. forces come under daily mortar, rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire at all of their three bases here. There are no safe zones. Some streets have become front lines for pitched battles between insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, with local residents often killed or wounded in the cross fire.

During Saddam’s days, the town was a military bastion protecting against invasion from the West — and home to a division of Republican Guards.

Today’s insurgents are led by those former Republican Guard officers, as well as members of the local branch of Saddam’s military intelligence. The “FRE” (former regime elements) are professional, clever, and have vast financial resources to launch coordinated attacks, according to the U.S. military.

They have “co-opted” a number of other groups, including Iraqis and foreign “jihadis” (holy war fighters), common criminals and local tribesmen willing to take up arms and fight any “foreigner” for a price, American officials say.

Insurgents losing steam?
But U.S. military commanders claim there are increasing signs that the insurgency is losing steam in greater Ramadi. To back this assertion, the military notes:

  • The number of attacks on U.S. forces has dropped dramatically since the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when there were 19 suicide bombings alone.
  • Attacks here during Election Day were minimal, compared to other flashpoints. Also, insurgent fighters have taken to wearing masks to hide their identity, as much from locals as from U.S. forces, U.S. commanders say.
  • Today the insurgent ranks appear to have been depleted to around 25 percent of their original strength, according to U.S. officials.
  • There are increasing reports of battles between jihadi extremist groups like al-Qaida in Iraq or the Ansar al Suna Army, and more moderate, secular insurgents, made up of ex-Baathists and Saddam loyalists.

“These groups united, briefly, because they shared a common enemy,” Maj. Tom Munsey said. “But they have two completely different agendas. One wants a Wahabbist (puritanical Islamic) empire; the other wants a Baathist Iraq. This is why the insurgency will ultimately implode.”

Hoping for a turning point
The 2/5 Marines had hoped that the election would be a turning point in the counterinsurgency here.

”We spoke with many locals,” Munsey said. “And everyone we talked to said they wanted to vote. They were not opposed to the election. But they were simply too afraid to do so.”

As it turned out, more than 15,000 mostly Arab Sunnis did vote in Al Ansar (though only 1,700 braved the public death threats in Ramadi), where each voter had to contend with polling stations that looked more like battle zones.

Here, indelible ink-stained index fingers were not held up as badges of honor, but rather hidden in the pants pockets and under the abayas of marked men and some equally brave women.

But there were other factors at play: traditionally Ramadi always turned to Baghdad for budgets and guidance. There is little if any pan-Iraqi political awareness here, and only three of the 111 parties on the national assembly ballot are even active in the region.

“For 50 years, the Ramadians were told who to vote for — and that is a tough nut to crack,” Munsey said.

Back to normal?
Meanwhile, according to the Americans, the insurgents have lost a kind of “hearts-and-minds” campaign of their own in Ramadi.

They have backed off of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and now focus entirely on U.S. and Iraqi military targets.

As a result, the city has in many respects returned to normal — the market is now full of merchants, goods and shoppers. Most residents would like to see both the insurgents and U.S. troops out of their town.

“I can’t blame them,” said Golf Company commander Capt. Jeff Kenney, who was reduced to about four hours of sleep during the three-day security lockdown his company enforced in Ramadi during elections.

“But the enemy loves to challenge us. He did it before polling day, he did it on polling day, and he’ll do it after polling day," Kenney said.

On Tuesday, a barrage of six mortars hit Kenney’s temporary headquarters at the government center in downtown Ramadi, slightly wounding one Marine. Earlier, his own command vehicle was chewed up by shrapnel from a mortar. He wasn’t inside. 

The battle for Ramadi is not over. And Sunday’s election already feels like a footnote.