The Clearing

Gunfights, airstrikes and guerrillas: American and Iraqi forces clear insurgent area in Ramadi

March, 30 2007

RAMADI, Iraq (AP) _ It began with a house-to-house sweep through what U.S. forces said was one of this city's last insurgent strongholds. It ended with rooftop gunfights, airstrikes and dead guerrillas on the streets _ one sprawled next to a grenade he was about to hurl.

Five days later, the operation was over in a section of Ramadi dubbed the "Heart of Darkness," and a newly arrived Marine battalion was poised to move in with Iraqi troops to hold it.

Commanders hope the troops will be able to keep out insurgents, but "unfortunately as always it will be a challenge," said Marine Maj. Jim Lively, who was part of a seven-man American team that worked with an Iraqi army company to help clear the area.

"It's so easy for them to put down their weapons, walk away" and blend in with civilians, he said of the insurgents.

Several dead fighters in flowing robes or track suits lay in pools of blood on the road outside the courtyard where Lively spoke, one with an automatic rifle beside him. "No doubt the rest are either out of town, or maybe sitting in one of these houses we just went through," Lively said.

Ramadi is still tremendously dangerous, but U.S. commanders say daily attacks have been cut by half in recent months, partly due to help from local tribal leaders. But the sheiks' influence is weaker in the city center, because no single leader holds sway.

Commanders say the only way to secure such zones is to pour in troops and keep them there.

Until now, the area targeted in the latest operation was rarely patrolled for lack of soldiers, said 1st Lt. Mohamed Raad, an Iraqi company commander.

"That place was the vortex of evil," said Sgt. Jack Robison of the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment. "Previously we wouldn't even have thought about walking down there."

The operation's first day, March 24, saw coalition troops creep out before dawn with night vision goggles, climbing into the blown-out ruins of an abandoned home. With Iraqi soldiers and a handful of police, they swept through houses searching for weapons, checking IDs and photographing men of fighting age.

Helicopter gunships and fighter jets crisscrossed the sky. Unmanned drones fitted with video cameras buzzed overhead.

The insurgents were watching.

"We got a peeker to the south, on a rooftop," Robison said. "Got one of those black masks on."
Robison's unit moved into a house and used it as a base for several days _ living alongside a nervous family that watched with curiosity, served tea, and asked when the Americans would leave.

Soon, exchanges of gunfire erupted outside. An insurgent sniper shot an Iraqi lieutenant through the neck as he stood in a courtyard. Two Iraqis and an American also were wounded.
Several sweating U.S. soldiers stopped by and reported that bullets kicked up dirt beside them as they ran. One bullet struck an American in the side, but he was uninjured _ saved by his armored vest.

Sitting on a bed with radio antennas sticking out the window, Army Capt. James Enos requested a missile strike on guerrillas holed up on a nearby rooftop. An explosion sounded. "Evidently that second-floor roof is now a first floor," Enos said.

Over the next two days, troops cleared houses as tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles guarded roads and Army civil affairs teams handed out food and water. One woman about to give birth was taken to a hospital in a Bradley.

On a wall across the street from a mosque, someone had scrawled in Arabic: "Ramadi is life for the holy warriors ... and a cemetery for Americans."

At night, Apache helicopters fired Hellfire missiles that streaked red across the sky. They also fired a 30-mm gun, and spent shells bounced off the concrete walls of a villa being used as a U.S. base. The target was another building where insurgents had been firing from with machine guns.

Among bodies found in rubble the next day was that of a little girl.

The fourth morning at dawn, Raad's company moved into another grid of streets as U.S. tank cannons boomed and coalition machine guns provided cover. Fearing bombs in the streets, they moved between houses by climbing over walls with ladders.

It was a prudent choice: Ordnance disposal units were called in repeatedly as bomb after bomb was found buried in the road.

Staff Sgt. Cory Schroeder, whose unit disarmed five explosive devices a day, said insurgents even planted two of them behind his vehicle while he disarmed another.

After removing a trip wire that Iraqi troops found in front of a door, Schroeder moved through a pile of trash outside. Looking down as troops walked in front of him, he spotted two metal strips wrapped together with brown tape _ a pressure plate trigger connected to a bomb.

"Stop! God!" Schroeder yelled. "These things are everywhere."

As the operation wore on, coalition vehicles used bullhorns to air Arabic messages telling residents to stay inside. Streets were deserted. "This is your last chance to help. Don't move.

Don't run," one said. "Help the Iraqi army and the American forces find insurgents."
Another vehicle briefly blared a screeching Metallica tune.

Raad's men went house to house, steadying their weapons on rooftop walls to engage insurgents blocks away. Amid the crackle of automatic-weapons fire, families huddled downstairs. Raad hurled a grenade off one roof after seeing two suspected insurgents running toward him.

"Most people are telling me it's a safe area, it's a good area," Raad said after speaking to one family. "This is a very bad area; they just don't want to help."

On Wednesday morning, shots rang out again.

A block from where Raad and his men spent the night on the floor of another civilian home, six men lay dead in the street _ shot by Iraqi soldiers. Most appeared in their 20s. Iraqi troops said the men were insurgents.

The body of a middle-age, mustachioed man in a gray robe sprawled on its back, eyes open. One hand held a red checkered head scarf. Six inches from an open palm was a green pineapple-shaped grenade he was evidently about to throw at Iraqi soldiers on the rooftop.

Around the corner, a burned car sat in the road sunken in ash, its dashboard melted. A trail of blood led to a courtyard where the body of a young man lay in the dirt beside a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Another body was on the ground near a charred, overturned motorcycle.

In the yard of a nearby house where another pressure plate had been rigged to set off a bomb, troops dug up a blue plastic barrel filled with Kalashnikovs, grenade launchers, a sniper scope, copper wires, bomb-making instructions and ski masks.

Also in the stash: American ammunition clips, flash-bang grenades and infrared strobes.

"They're taking them off our boys," said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Harper.

"Our dead guys?" another soldier asked.

"Yeah," Harper said, shaking his head.

Lively said the house had been abandoned by its owners and had been used by a half dozen insurgents to store weapons and plan attacks.

"This is going to be a safe place," Lively said of the area. "But the hold phase is key. "You gotta keep a lot of folks on the ground here when we leave."