By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
July 17, 2007 – This Anbar province city was once held up as a symbol of U.S. failure in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq controlled Ramadi. It was enemy territory, and American servicemembers called it the Wild West of Iraq. Just a few months ago, the idea that Americans could walk around the center of the city would have been unthinkable. U.S. personnel could not move from one heavily fortified area to another without receiving small-arms fire or an improvised explosive device attack.
Times change. A striking illustration of the changing fortunes of Ramadi took place today, when Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took a walk around downtown.
"This is incredible," Pace said as he stood in the middle of a street that doubles as a bazaar.
"In April, we could not have done this," said Marine Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskins, commander of Multinational Force West. "That's how quick things have turned around."
This wasn't some staged event highlighting the changed security situation in the Sunni city. It was a spur-of-the-moment visit occasioned by a dust storm that shut down flying in the province.
Pace is on a visit to the U.S. Central Command area of operations. He flew to Ramadi and visited with servicemembers based there. He was supposed to fly on to Tikrit, but the dust storms grounded his helicopters.
Army Col. John Charlton, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, invited Pace to see for himself what it was like downtown. Pace and his party left the compound, drove over the Euphrates River bridge and visited with Ramadi Mayor Latief Eyada at the newly renovated government offices.
"The security situation is much, much better now," Eyada told Pace through an interpreter. "People were jailed in their houses by the violence of the terrorists. Now we are out. We can meet friends and relatives. We can build again. We are all after the terrorists."
The chairman and his party left the government center and drove to the center of town. Pace got out of his vehicle and walked along into a market. Children and adults came to see who was in the street. He spoke to the owners of a watch store and a grocery store. He spoke with children and their parents who came out to see what all the commotion was about.
"This is typical," said Kristin Hagerstolm, chief of the brigade's provincial reconstruction team. "We are able to go into every part of the city. We are able to work with the department heads and make some real progress. This has become a permissive environment, and we are able to interact with all levels of citizens in the city."
Hagerstolm, a State Department consular officer, volunteered for the assignment and arrived in the city in April. "It was still very much an armed and distrustful area then, but changes were happening," she said.
She traces the change to the rescue from al Qaeda of a local tribal sheikh.
"The rescue showed the Iraqis that we were the 'good guys' in this area," Hagerstolm said. The people of Ramadi suffered terribly at the hands of al Qaeda. She said there were instances of al Qaeda raping and killing and chopping off the heads of teenage girls to intimidate the population. For a while, it worked.
The change is dramatic, but it didn't happen overnight, Gaskins noted. "We're building on the groundwork that our predecessors laid," he said. "None of this would have been possible without the contributions and sacrifices of the units that fought in this area before us."
But the change is not irreversible, Charlton said. Al Qaeda has been humiliated and kicked out of the city, but they want to come back. The soldiers and Marines of the unit continually patrol the city. They are working with the Iraqi police and with Iraqi soldiers. Last month, they had a pitched battle against al Qaeda terrorists who were trying to re-infiltrate into the city. The unit killed all but three, who were detained, Charlton said.
Pace visited with Marines and Iraqis manning a combat outpost in the city and in a Joint Security Station. At the combat outpost, he met Marine Sgt. Kurt Bellmont. The 25-year-old noncommissioned officer is serving his fourth tour in Iraq - his third in Ramadi. The rifle platoon Marine saw the worst of times in the city and is enthusiastic about the changes.
"If you don't come down here for two weeks, you don't recognize the place," he said. "The changes are happening that fast. The Iraqi police are helping us with intelligence, and we're learning also. Ramadi is a big city, but you learn the families and learn who is out of place."
Pace has been talking about what the Iraqi sheikhs call the "Anbar Awakening" for months. He got the opportunity to see what it means on the ground with the young men and women who must make it happen. Surrounded by Iraqi children, the chairman threw back his head and laughed.
"It is amazing," the chairman said afterward. "This is an example of what can happen when the coalition and the Iraqi government gain the trust of the people."
The changes must be nurtured. "We are all worried that we won't be given the time to see these (efforts) through," Gaskins said. "After all the Iraqi people have been through - the terror of Saddam, the vicious attacks of al Qaeda - it would be a shame to end this."