Some of the heaviest fighting in months erupted on Wednesday in the troubled city of Ramadi. Throughout the day, the thud of mortars, bombs, and machine-gun fire echoed down desolate streets as insurgents battled hundreds of US Marines.
An estimated 25 insurgents were killed, and 25 people - including two Iraqi police - were detained in a day of clashes, which saw 13 US soldiers lightly wounded in firefights and multiple ambushes.
At sunset, as American helicopters swooped over central Ramadi, a small funeral procession for Iraqis killed in the fighting moved slowly through town. But stores remained locked behind metal gratings and few residents ventured onto streets littered with debris and cratered by bombs.
The escalation of violence in this Sunni city about 70 miles west of Baghdad presents a difficult Catch-22 for US commanders here who are working to reduce the visibility of US troops, empower Iraq's new government, and get security forces to take charge.
"Our presence does create violence, but our lack of presence could also create violence - maybe even more," says Maj. John Harrill, operations officer for the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines, the 1,000-strong force in Ramadi. "Every decision to reduce our presence or get out has to be at the right time," he says.
As US forces shrink their "footprint," cutting back sharply on neighborhood patrols and raids on certain roads, Iraqi security forces have often proven spotty at best in asserting control.
Balancing the political imperative of scaling back the US troop presence - and its lingering images of occupation - with the military campaign against insurgents and terrorists, is perhaps nowhere as critical as here in Anbar Province, the largest and possibly most restive part of Iraq's Sunni Triangle.
Anbar is traversed by a long stretch of the Euphrates River and vital roads west to Jordan and Syria. Yet Anbar's porous borders also permit an influx of foreign fighters to cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi - former Saddam Hussein strongholds that have bristled over the presence of US forces. As in Fallujah (30 miles to the east), US forces have confronted stubborn resistance in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar with 450,000 people. The Marine battalion here has suffered more than 30 deaths and 180 wounded since arriving in March.
After initially flooding the city with door-to-door searches for insurgents, since the June 28 transfer of power the Marines have focused their effort on securing a key stretch of highway running through central Ramadi between three US camps.
The concentration of Marines means fewer locations where they can be ambushed or hit with road bombs. Yet US commanders stress that the goal of a gradual withdrawal from Ramadi will only be possible as Iraqi forces act aggressively to curb violence, crime, and insurgent attacks. Ramadi, they say, will not become another Fallujah.
The challenges to this strategy are illustrated by a troubled district in central Ramadi that stretches from the Saddam Mosque to a US Marine base on the eastern edge of town. There, say military officials, sheikhs at local mosques advocate the kidnapping of foreign workers, "victory for the Mujahideen," and a "fight to the death." Repeated requests by US commanders for a stepped-up Iraqi security force, including effective checkpoints, have brought few results.
"We've done everything we agreed to - we've stayed out of the neighborhoods 99 percent of the time," Marine battalion commander Lieut. Col. Paul Kennedy told a meeting of Iraqi security officials on Tuesday. "Now we're asking that the [Iraqi]generals take the next step and ensure this stretch of road is safe - and they can walk their babies down the road."
Easier said than done, is the Iraqi reply. "We cannot guarantee that section of road," says provincial police chief Maj. Gen. Jaddan Mohamed Al Doulaymi, a 35-year veteran of the Iraqi police. "We will give orders, but maybe the police and soldiers will not obey them," he says.
Indeed, the Marines fighting here question not only the effectiveness, but the loyalties of Iraqi security forces. In this week's fighting, rarely were police or Iraqi National Guard forces visible on Ramadi streets. "They are very good at running and hiding," says Staff Sgt. Joseph Rappazzo, of Boston. Other Marines say they have been shot at by men wearing Iraqi police uniforms.
As violence has rekindled over the past week, the Marines have been forced to fight back aggressively at a time when they would prefer to avoid both the necessity and the symbolism of having downtown Ramadi barricaded by tanks, as it was Wednesday.
The more than four-hour firefight started when a supply run returning from the Marine base Combat Outpost in eastern Ramadi was struck in the early afternoon by a road bomb followed by rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire. A US rapid-reaction force responded, only to be hit by a similar ambush, including a car bomb.
Then "it was typical Ramadi - all hell breaks loose," says Capt. Rob Weiler of Woodbridge, Va., commander of Weapons Company, who said the fighting was some of the heaviest he's seen since the nationwide uprisings of April. Outside fighters may have organized the ambushes, although local Iraqis in this tightly knit community certainly joined the fight, Marines say. "If they want to keep fighting, we'll keep killing them," says Weiler, who like many Marines here sees no end to the conflict. His company of 154 people has suffered three killed and 54 wounded - a 35-percent casualty rate.
Thursday, hundreds of Marines flooded Ramadi neighborhoods on foot in a show of force aimed at drawing the insurgents into a fight. Troops patrolled down alleys and took up sniper positions on rooftops, exchanging in brief firefights. "Three hundred meters. Gray building. He's popping in and out," shouts Navy medic H.N. Gilbert Quesada, as he targets an insurgent shooting at the Marines.
Nearby, nervous Ramadi residents look on. Some say they would prefer that US forces withdraw to the outskirts of the city to avoid attacks that they say often kill civilians.
After Saddam fell "we had a big hope that our problems would be fixed," says Hassem Faheawi says, an unemployed worker. "But security now is zero. All we have is people killed every day.... The cemetery is full."