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Friday, August 31, 2007

An American Martyr.

Update: Marine to sue Murtha over Haditha incident accusations - Whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty?" Video.

Update: Michael Yon's latest dispatch - Over days of operations, I found Lieutenant Hamid to be courageous, intelligent, and with natural leadership abilities. Hamid asked me to publish his photo. He said he wants al Qaeda to come to Sadr City and look for him... (Read more)

From PatDollard.Com

The police station in Tameen, a district of Ramadi, occupies a wreck of a building – its roof shattered by shells, its windows blown out, its walls pockmarked by shrapnel. That is not unusual in Iraq. What makes this station extraordinary is that a city in the heart of the infamous Sunni Triangle, a city that once led the antiAmerican insurgency, has named it after a US soldier – Captain Travis Patriquin.

The honour is well-deserved. Captain Patriquin played a little-known but crucial role in one of the few American success stories of the Iraq war.

He helped to convert Ramadi from one of Iraq’s deadliest cities into arguably the safest outside the semi-autonomous Kurdish north. This graveyard for hundreds of American soldiers, which a Marine Corps intelligence report wrote off as a lost cause just a year ago, is where the US military now takes visiting senators, and journalists such as myself, to show the progress it is making. Ramadi will be Exhibit A when General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, appears before Congress in two weeks’ time to argue that the country as a whole should not be written off.

In Ramadi last weekend I did things unthinkable almost anywhere else in this violent country. I walked through the main souk without body armour, talking to ordinary Iraqis. Late one evening I strolled into the brightly lit Jamiah district of the city with Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Turner, the tobacco-chewing US marine in charge of central Ramadi, to buy kebabs from an outdoor restaurant – “It’s safer than London or New York,” Colonel Turner assured me.

I listened incredulously as Latif Obaid Ayadah, Ramadi’s Mayor, told me of his desire to build an airport and tourist resort in Ramadi and talked – only half in jest – of twinning his city with Belfast and Oklahoma City. “I want it to be a small slice of heaven,” he declared.

I had met Captain Patriquin while embedded with US troops in Ramadi last November. He was a big man, moustachioed, ex-Special Forces, fluent in Arabic and engaged in what was then a revolutionary experiment for a US military renowned for busting doors down. He and a small group from the First Brigade Combat Team, part of the 1st Armoured Division, were assiduously courting the local sheikhs – tribal leaders – over endless cups of tea and cigarettes.

They were encouraging them to rise up against the hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters – Saudi, Jordanian, Syrian, Sudanese, Yemeni – who had arrived in Ramadi two years earlier, promising to lead the battle against the infidel Americans. What al-Qaeda actually did was recruit local thugs, seize control of the city, and impose a Taleban-style rule of terror. Mayor Latif said that they regularly beheaded “collaborators” in public and left the heads beside the corpses. Mischievous children would then put cigarettes in the mouths of the disembodied heads.

Captain Patriquin may have offered more than mere words. His main interlocutor, Sheikh Abdul Sittar Bezea al-Rishawi, told The Times that he gave them guns and ammunition too. The sheikhs did rise up. They formed a movement called the Anbar Awakening, led by Sheikh Sittar. They persuaded thousands of their tribesmen to join the Iraqi police, which was practically defunct thanks to al-Qaeda death threats, and to work with the reviled US troops. The US military built a string of combat outposts (COPs) throughout a city that had previously been a no-go area, and through a combination of Iraqi local knowledge and American firepower they gradually regained control of Ramadi, district by district, until the last al-Qaeda fighters were expelled in three pitched battles in March. What happened in Ramadi was later replicated throughout much of Anbar province.

Ramadi’s transformation is breathtaking. Shortly before I arrived last November masked al-Qaeda fighters had brazenly marched through the city centre, pronouncing it the capital of a new Islamic caliphate. The US military was still having to fight its way into the city through a gauntlet of snipers, rocket-propelled grenades, suicide car bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Fifty US soldiers had been killed in the previous five months alone. I spent 24 hours huddled inside Eagles Nest, a tiny COP overlooking the derelict football stadium, listening to gunfire, explosions and the thump of mortars. The city was a ruin, with no water, electricity or functioning government. Those of its 400,000 terrified inhabitants who had not fled cowered indoors as fighting raged around them.

Today Ramadi is scarcely recognisable. Scores of shattered buildings testify to the fury of past battles, but those who fled the violence are now returning. Pedestrians, cars and motorbike rickshaws throng the streets. More than 700 shops and businesses have reopened. Restaurants stay open late into the evening. People sit outside smoking hookahs, listening to music, wearing shorts – practices that al-Qaeda banned. Women walk around with uncovered faces. Children wave at US Humvees. Eagles’ Nest, a heavily fortified warren of commandeered houses, is abandoned and the stadium hosts football matches.

“Al-Qaeda is gone. Everybody is happy,” said Mohammed Ramadan, 38, a stallholder in the souk who witnessed four executions. “It was fear, pure fear. Nobody wanted to help them but you had to do what they told you.”

On the night of June 30 a US patrol chanced upon two trucks laden with al-Qaeda fighters, weapons and explosives approaching Ramadi across the desert from the south, and two US soldiers were killed in what became known as the “Battle of Donkey Island”. But there has not been a US casualty, or major attack, since. No vehicles can enter the city without being checked for explosives, and any al-Qaeda fighter who returned would be swiftly handed over.

“We have an Iraqi saying: ‘If you’re bitten by a snake you’re scared of the smallest insect’. We’re not going to let that snake back any more,” said Ali Sami, 39, another stallholder who recently returned home after fleeing to Baghdad. Ramadi has gone from war zone to building site. US soldiers have become the nation-builders so derided by Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defence Secretary. They are training Ramadi’s 7,000 new policemen (a year ago it had 200) and helping the Iraqis to rebuild their broken city.

They have set up 12 district councils and a city council. They have created 19,000 day labour jobs, paying locals $7 (£3.47) an hour to clear rubble, remove acres of garbage, repair cratered roads, paint shop fronts and replace underground pipes destroyed by IEDs. They have restored electricity, water, rubbish collections and a rudimentary bus service. They are erecting 1,000 solar-powered street lamps. The hospital – commandeered by al-Qaeda – and the fire station are back up and running. Criminal courts will reopen next month. So will Ramadi’s ceramics factory, one of its few real employers. Gunfire has become a sound of celebration.

The city council and US military broadcast daily progress reports, introduced by the national anthem and English football results, from giant loudspeakers above 19 police stations.

The 6,000 US soldiers are now dubbed “friendly forces”, and most are bemused by their new civil role. “I want to fight al-Qaeda, but f*** it – this is victory,” said Corporal Patrick Marzillo from Chicago.

“Instead of using my radio to summon support fire I’m calling to get a water leak mended,” said Colonel Turner. The soldiers’ biggest enemy now is the scorching heat – well over 110 degrees most days, which is no joke in body armour.

The al-Qaeda fighters driven from Ramadi have not left Iraq, of course. Indeed, they appear to be stepping up suicide bomb attacks elsewhere. But Colonel John Charlton, the US officer in overall charge of Ramadi, insists that al-Qaeda has suffered a major setback. “We’ve denied them a base of operations. I think it was a severe strategic blow to lose not only Ramadi, but all of Anbar province,” he said.

Iraqi Shias are also worried that the new US-trained police forces of Ramadi and Anbar province could eventually metamorphose into well-trained Sunni militias; the Sunni insurgency may be fading, but the Shia-Sunni civil war rages on.

But for now Ramadi’s citizens are enjoying their improbable peace, and remembering the American they call “Martyr Husham” – the brave and generous martyr.

Captain Patriquin, 32, a father of three young children, was killed by a roadside bomb days after I left Ramadi last winter. Sheikh Sittar wept when told the news. He and several tribal leaders attended his memorial service. Captain Patriquin “was an extraordinary man who played a very, very important role,” he told The Times.

He “showed Iraqis that Americans are real people and not an evil occupying force bent on destroying their land…He was a true hero who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” said Colonel Charlton.