Ramadi struggles to instill a rule of law

Attacks rise, but a new $21 million court has failed to convict any major suspects in six months. US Marines frustrated by shrinking role in key Iraqi city

Ali al-Mashhdani/REUTERS/FILE
Security personnel check the damage of a car bomb attack in Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad July 20, 2009. /

In this city that became synonymous with Al Qaeda-linked violence, Iraqi forces are grappling with corruption and lawlessness so pervasive it threatens to derail the hard-won security of the last two years.

Despite a $21 million, US-funded judicial complex opened recently and regular attacks, not a single major case has been brought to justice in at least the last six months, according to US military officials.

"My goal is to get them [Iraqi officials] to prosecute and develop a terrorism case," says Lt. Col. Joseph Cabell, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment.

But the clock is ticking. The Pasadena, Calif.-based infantry battalion leaves in October and will be the last Marine unit in Ramadi.

As the capital of Anbar, a province where the Sunni insurgency once flourished, success in Ramadi affects security throughout central Iraq, including Baghdad. And there are concerns that Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other insurgent groups may be reforming here.

Meet the judge

Cabell, from Parkersburg, West Virginia, started a monthly security conference two months ago, bringing together Iraqi police, special forces, army commanders and other officials to try to improve coordination in the capital. At the latest conference, the gathering included a judge, who was meeting some of the Iraqi police commanders he was meant to deal with for the first time.

"A judge is not going to be able to do his job before the police do theirs; if you don't bring me evidence, there's nothing I can do," judge Abdullah Mohammad Abd told the police colonels surrounding him at the meeting this week.

The police complained that when they bring suspects to court, even when they are caught with weapons or have confessed, they are let go.

"If a criminal makes a confession that's not all the evidence," responded Mr. Abd. "Detained people still have rights. If there's a bruise, we can see they've been hit. We all know that sometimes even if they're guilty and they get hit the confession is not going to be admissible and we'll lose."

Mr Abd, who has served as a judge for 10 years, says the suspects have been beaten in custody in a small percentage of the cases he sees.

US and Iraqi officials say they believe bribery is behind the release of some other detainees – including a suspected leader of a Baathist insurgent group the Marines say has been responsible for grenade attacks. He was freed recently for lack of evidence.

No calls for US help

The Marines have been stationed at their base on the outskirts of Ramadi since the June 30 deadline for US combat troops to leave the cities under the US-Iraq national security agreement.

Despite vehicle bombs in July, which prompted Iraqi officials to declare a state of emergency in the city, the Anbar operations command, under control of the Prime Ministry and responsible for coordinating security, has not once called for security assistance from the Marines since the end of June.

Requests for help from lower-level Iraqi commanders have been bounced back through the Anbar operations command, which has not acted upon them.

"It's sort of a messy transition period. We have pulled back and it's not going to be a clean break," says Maj. Kirk Merritt, the battalion's civil affairs officer from Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

At the security meeting this week, Marine officers reminded their Iraqi counterparts that US forces were available to help with intelligence and surveillance, biometrics to identify suspects, and defusing explosives.

The security agreement, which requires the Marines to give the Iraqis 72 hours notice to move outside their base and then only with Iraqi escorts, has left part of the battalion with so little to do that more than 500 Marines are being sent home early.

"Our main goal now is to help provide stability," says Cabell. With about 15,000 Marines left in the country, the entire US Marine Corps effort by next spring will have been diverted from Iraq to Afghanistan. Most of the Marines are now based west of Ramadi, where foreign fighters have traditionally infiltrated from Syria and where AQI set up supply routes and safe houses.

Throughout Iraq, although the Iraqi Army is seen as mostly reliable, the police forces that maintain primary control of security in most major cities remain a source of concern.

A thin blue line

Ramadi, part of Iraq's Sunni triangle, was an AQI stronghold and the scene of some of the bloodiest attacks against US forces until tribal leaders turned against the insurgents in a movement called the Awakening. Many of the policemen here were tribesmen rather than trained police recruits.

The Ramadi police officials at the conference complained that they didn't have enough gasoline or spare parts for police cars and described a system ruled by corruption as well as their frustration with a criminal justice system that lets suspects go free.

Maj. John Badame, the battalion's operating officer from Aliso Viejo, California, who has bonded with his Iraqi counterparts as a trainer, was candid with them: [Editor's note: An earlier version misstated Mr. Badame's title.]

"Share the wealth as much as possible," he told the group. "You are survivors. You made it here through a lot of bad times. Stop skimming off the fuel, food, and other funds."

Asked about Badame's comments, one of the Iraqi police chiefs explained that in the absence of a system to repair police cars or pay for gasoline, the only alternative was to divert money or demand that police officers chip in.

Despite fears that AQI is regrouping here, Cabell says he believes they would not be able to put down roots again because their recruitment base has dried up.

Attack trends in Ramadi are down from levels a year ago, but US officials describe attacks in July as a protracted offensive by insurgents. The frequency and sophistication of car bomb attacks in particular has sparked concern by US and Iraqi officials that insurgents are reemerging to test the ability of Iraqi security forces now working largely alone.

"We won a battle but we didn't win the war. We know we are still fighting them," said Col. Salih Mehdi Shaheen, the district chief of police. "They're still targeting the civilians and we know they'll do more than that until the elections [in January]."

"We know this war isn't done yet. Somebody is going to have to finish this and that's going to have to be the Iraqis," says Merritt.

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