By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 19, 2007 - Driving through downtown Ramadi today is a strange experience for anyone who saw the city in 2006. Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited the city today and said he's amazed at the differences from a year ago.
There is construction in the streets of the city; school is out of session and children play on playgrounds, including riding on a makeshift Ferris wheel that would give a safety inspector fits.
The firehouse stands full of trucks, and firefighters sit outside waiting for a summons. Iraqi police patrol the streets. The market is fully stocked, and shoppers search for bargains in electronics, household appliances and food.
Ramadi looks like a normal Middle Eastern city, albeit with a lot of buildings exhibiting bullet holes.
Ramadi in 2006 and into 2007 was al Qaeda in Iraq's capital city, with a population ruled by fear, intimidation and terror. Only 200 Iraqis were brave enough to serve as police in Ramadi. The provincial government could not sit in the city, the provincial capital, because of the intimidation. The governor and his staff were a government in exile meeting in Baghdad.
Coalition servicemembers moving from one part of the city to another invariably received small-arms and mortar fire or struck improvised explosive devices. Many Marines and soldiers died in Ramadi.
Beginning in April 2007, tribal sheikhs and leaders and people of Ramadi decided enough was enough and found common cause with coalition forces against al Qaeda. "(Al Qaeda) has no support from the local population," said Army Col. John Charlton, commander of 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, and operations in the area centered on Ramadi. "The people of Ramadi will not let al Qaeda get back in. They contrast the security they have now with the terror they had before, and they just won't let that happen."
Charlton's comments came during a walking tour of Ramadi's market for Mullen, who walked through the market surrounded by children, their parents and just plain shoppers.
Mullen also visited a joint security station in the heart of the city. Manned by a company from 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, the station combines coalition forces with Iraqi security personnel and serves as a focal point for security operations in the market area.
"This is representative of what is going on all over Iraq," the chairman told the Marines at the station following a meeting with company and battalion officers. "It is very powerful stuff, and we are very grateful for that. You are serving at a really vital time in a really vital part, not just of Iraq, but of the world.
"You are making a huge difference, please keep it up," he said. "I have not been here in Anbar for almost a year, and the change is breathtaking."
The stations illustrate the "hold" portion of the "clear, hold, build" counterinsurgency strategy. First, coalition and Iraqi forces clear an area of the enemy. Then, they hold that area to stop the enemy from coming back in. Finally, they build infrastructure and services to give the people a reason for supporting the whole effort.
The U.S. government is funding a large portion of the reconstruction of Ramadi with Commander's Emergency Relief Program funds and millions of dollars provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development going into electricity, water, sewer and garbage contracts. Sewer lines are being dug; roads are being repaved; water systems are going to homes; and, as a result, businesses are opening, and Iraqis are getting work.
The government of Iraq also has provided more than $150 million to the province, Charlton said. "It's not where it needs to be, but to my mind there has been a great improvement," the colonel said.
This should increase when the province's budget is passed by the Iraqi legislature and passed to provincial authorities. "That will give them the funds they will need to improve services," Charlton said.
Iraqi forces are stepping to the fore also. Coalition police training teams continue to work with police in the city. "We are walking around in an area that used to be extremely violent, and Iraqi police are the ones who are bringing that calm," the colonel said.
He said the police remain a work in progress, but it is still an almost-brand-new force, with about 8,000 members in the district police. "What they need more work on and more help on, are those managerial skills that allow them to maintain their forces," Charlton said. "So we're focusing on logistics, intelligence, administration, so they can manage their forces, provide logistics for their forces, and sustain operations."
Coalition forces have made adjustments to allow the police to move forward. Charlton has reduced the coalition presence in the city. "I can tell you ... that you will see a lot more Iraqi police in the city and a lot fewer coalition forces, and that's a specific strategy to allow them to more forward," he said. "We're still backing them up, but we're more in an advisory role. We're not detaining people any more; we're letting the Iraqis do that, and we're focusing exclusively on training the force."
Terrorism remains a danger, Charlton said. "Al Qaeda is still lurking in the shadows," he said. "That's why we're really getting the Iraqis to build their intelligence capabilities, so they can infiltrate these small cells and stop al Qaeda from infiltrating the city."