Sunday, April 15, 2007


RAMADI, Iraq --A year ago, Ramadi's police force had virtually been wiped out by a potent insurgency that destroyed every police station, leaving only a couple dozen officers on the job and a lawless city with nowhere to turn for help.

Now, guerrilla fighters have begun to disappear, schools and shops have reopened, and civilians have begun walking previously deserted streets.

The reason: thousands of police - some believed to be former insurgents and most loyal to local sheiks - have begun pouring into this once-lawless Euphrates River city.

"I wouldn't tell you that this place is safe, but I will tell you that it's stable," U.S. Col. Miciotto Johnson said of the district of Tameem, where one of Ramadi's nine police stations opened in January.

"We still may have sporadic gunfire here and there, but we're definitely not having the RPG and IED attacks that we had before."

Still, dangers persist. On April 6, a suicide bomber driving a truck loaded with TNT and chlorine gas hit a police checkpoint in Tameem, killing 27 people - two of them police officers.

The mere presence of police in Ramadi is a remarkable turnaround from years past.

By late 2005, the Sunni insurgency had blown up or burned down every police station in the city, virtually eliminating a force whose rank-and-file fled or simply quit.

Sheiks offered up their tribesmen to rebuild it, but in January 2006, a suicide bomber attacked one of the first recruiting drives, killing more than 50 people. Several sheiks were assassinated soon after, and the effort ground to a halt.

The government appointed a police chief anyway, who became one of only a couple dozen police officers on the job.

When an Associated Press reporter visited his office last year, he boasted insurgents posed no serious threat - even as a mortar round blew a hole in the building that was to be his headquarters, wounding one recruit.

In August, according to American commanders, al-Qaida operatives beheaded another sheik who refused support and safe passage through his territory in northwest Ramadi.

Tribal leaders became infuriated when the militants refused to hand over the sheik's corpse for four days. According to Islamic custom, a body must be buried within 24 hours.

Turning toward an alliance with the Americans, the sheiks then banded together under an umbrella movement called "The Awakening," and called on their supporters to join the police.

This time, Americans offered protection, and the sheiks kept their word.

Today, about 4,500 police patrol most parts of Ramadi and nine permanent police stations have been set up, along with many substations, usually manned jointly with American and Iraqi troops.

Police officers stand on wrecked street corners, hunkered behind walls of green sandbags. Some, fearful of insurgents, hide their faces with black ski masks.

Just erecting the stations was a struggle. Two days before the Tameem station opened in January, insurgents wired the building with explosives and blew off two of its outer walls. On their first day at work, police officers faced a mortar barrage, followed by daily small-arms attacks.

Today, new blue and white police trucks - most lacking armor or bulletproof windshields but mounted with machine-gun turrets - cruise in small convoys, sirens blaring, blue lights flashing.

The police have proven tremendously effective in reducing violence. The U.S. military's daily tracking of "significant acts" - previously filled with attacks - has been reduced in recent weeks mostly to sporadic exchanges of fire and weapons cache finds, one discovered by police on the grounds of a U.S. outpost.

Their success is attributable in part to the fact that residents - who once either supported the insurgency or looked the other way - want them around. Unlike the mostly Shiite Iraqi army troops deployed here, police in Ramadi are local Sunnis.

"My men know the neighborhood because they are from the neighborhood," said 31-year-old police Capt. Hussein Abu Amsha, who works at the Tameem station. "They know who is bad, who is good."

Such distinctions are easily lost on American troops, who find it difficult to tell friend from foe in a war where insurgents typically fight in civilian clothes.

Also working in America's favor: an apparent split in the Sunni insurgency.

On Friday, the spokesman for the Islamic Army in Iraq, a Sunni militant group, accused al-Qaida and its umbrella organization of killing 30 of its members. In an interview on Al-Jazeera, Ibrahim al-Shimmari attacked Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the al-Qaida umbrella group, accusing him of violating Islamic law as well as sanctioning the "assassination" of fighters and forcing others to surrender their weapons. He said his group wants to free Iraq of "American and Iranian occupation."

American commanders say recruits are screened, but acknowledge some might have actively fought them in the past.

"Some of these guys were undoubtedly insurgents not too long ago," said U.S. Maj. Jared Norrell. "But you can't argue the results. They ran out the foreign fighters, they ran off al-Qaida. Now we go out and they wave at us instead of shooting at us."

Young men in some neighborhoods are so eager to sign up, they approach passing U.S. patrols saying they want to join the police force.

Part of their eagerness is caused by unemployment. But equally crucial is a growing fear among Sunni Muslims of domination by Shiites, who are a majority nationwide.

Many police accused Iran of meddling in their Sunni-dominated Anbar province; even American commanders deny it.

Police officers complain the government has been slow to equip them as well as a 2,250-man auxiliary paramilitary force, whose members are known as "Emergency Response Units."

The ERUs were launched in November to capitalize on the Awakening movement. Also on the streets: several hundred "neighborhood watch" volunteers, also slated to become police.

For now, they patrol neighborhoods armed and wearing tracksuits, sneakers and sometimes bright orange vests.
American officers said there was a reluctance within the Shiite government in Baghdad to arm what some fear could become a Sunni militia.

Local sheiks have stepped in to fill the gaps, offering food and uniforms, though perhaps half the ERUs lack them. Some ERUs show up at work with their own weapons. They dress in a mixture of civilian clothes and army-style uniforms.

"Every month it's a struggle to get these guys paid, get them equipment they need," Norrell said. "If we don't directly get involved with going to pick up the pay and ensure it gets out, it doesn't happen."

The Tameem station is fortified with blast walls, concertina wire and sandbags. Police posts dot the tops of adjacent apartment buildings once used by insurgent snipers.

One officer, shot in the leg by insurgents, limped on crutches. A cast and metal brace was wrapped around the arm of another policeman wounded in a gunfight.

"A few months ago you wouldn't have seen a soul on these streets," Amsha said, gesturing toward an outdoor market where children walked with mothers in black abayas.

U.S. Maj. Adam Rudy put it more bluntly: "If we came here in broad daylight a few weeks ago, it would have been a firefight."

American troops acknowledge al-Qaida and other insurgent groups remain a serious threat, but they are almost giddy at the drop in violence and credit police for the change.

"If they quit, it'll be a bad day in the city," said Sgt. 1st Class Frank Mosher. "It'll go to hell again."

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