White Flags, I

No safe place: White flags in the middle

June 27, 2006


RAMADI, Iraq (AP) _ White flags tied to wooden poles flutter atop villas and bombed-out homes. They're carried by school boys in the streets, waved out of car windows by fearful drivers.

Their message: We're neutral. Don't shoot.

In a city caught between insurgents and U.S.-backed Iraqi forces struggling to secure it, there are no front lines to cross, few safe places to be. Everywhere is a a war zone -- its rooftops, its streets, its fairgrounds, its decimated buildings.

"It's terrifying," said one man living in a dilapidated house of stone bricks downtown, where street battles erupt daily. "You can't go to sleep or wake up without hearing the sound of gunfire."

American officers asked The Associated Press not to use the names of civilians interviewed during U.S. patrols, claiming they could be killed by insurgents. But many residents who've lived through three years of war on their doorstep said they fear both sides.

Insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi forces alike regularly storm private homes in this Euphrates River city, climbing to rooftops and firing at each other. Sometimes they carry down casualties, leaving blood and spent casings behind.

During one shootout, U.S. soldiers peering over a rooftop ledge shot two gunmen dead a couple blocks away and fired 40 mm grenades at a third. The exchange of fire shattered windows in a second-floor balcony.

Filing out of the home amid more gunfire, they passed the silent men and bowed women who lived there -- huddling in a hallway downstairs. One Iraqi soldier, his face bloody after being shot in the nose, trailed after.


The war has ruined this once-prosperous provincial metropolis 70 miles west of Baghdad. Entire downtown blocks have been shredded by gunfire, mortars, grenades and airstrikes.

Nobody knows how many civilians have been killed or wounded in crossfire, nor how many have fled. Ramadi, capital of insurgent-plagued Anbar province, once had 400,000 people. Now countless homes sit abandoned. Others stay on; they have no money and nowhere else to go.

Some roads are closed to all but military traffic. Shops are routinely shuttered. Electricity, water and other state services are sporadic. Ramadi's telephone infrastructure and cell towers have been destroyed, along with its police stations.

The result: a lawless city where residents are left to fend for themselves. Some can't do even that: Iraqi households have the right to one Kalashnikov each for self-defense, but Marines and Iraqi troops have been confiscating them in some areas, believing insurgents are using them.

"I don't feel safe in my own house, and it's getting worse. We never know which the bullets are coming from," one man said as Army troops paused in his courtyard for cover and occasional bursts of gunfire echoed outside. "We can't even go to the mosque to pray."

Many blame American forces for failing to provide security. "We see them doing a lot of missions, but nothing changes," said one veiled woman. "There's no government here, no police, no security. How are we supposed to live?"


Despite the daily violence, life in Ramadi goes on. Kind of.

When a Marine-defended outpost came under attack one afternoon, traffic flowed normally on nearby streets even as tanks drove into the area and explosions and gunfire crackled.

Other days during my time there, the souk bustled and the faithful headed to mosques to pray. Businessmen sat outside shop fronts sipping tea and selling refrigerators, home appliances and fruit while patrolling Marines sprinted past, pointing guns around corners.

Amid bursts of machine-gun-fire, children were still walking to school, though parents said they often missed class because of the violence. One schoolboy walking home with friends waved a white cloth as Iraqi soldiers conducting a sweep screamed at him to get out of the area. Another man said his brother came to visit carrying a white flag "and couldn't have gotten here without it."

U.S. troops say white flags don't symbolize neutrality to them. They're weary of suicide bombers who've launched attacks waving them. One civilian living a few blocks from an outpost where Marines often exchange fire with insurgents said he couldn't fix an electric cable on his roof for fear of being shot by American gunners.

"They think we're all insurgents," said the father of four.

Sometimes, the war comes home. In eastern Ramadi, U.S. and Iraqi troops took over half a dozen villas to provide security for a new traffic checkpoint. They busted holes out of rooftop walls to make sniper positions and slept on floors wrapped in the families' blankets.

Hundreds of people packed up and left. And for good reason: The troops came under fire five days in a row.

Copyright 2006 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.