White Flags, II

This story never made it on the wire..

In war-battered Iraqi city, every resident has a war-story to tell


¶ RAMADI, Iraq _ For hours, he listened uneasily as gunshots rang out and military loudspeakers warned residents to stay indoors. Then a squad of American and Iraqi troops climbed over the wall of his house and started asking questions about life in a war-zone.

¶ The conversation didn't last long.

¶ Blasts of automatic weapons-fire crackled from insurgent guns up the road, sending streaks of red light streaming past his living room window. In an instant, 38-year-old leapt from his chair and ducked in a corner while his trembling wife knelt on a thin mattress nearby, arms wrapped tight around three small children.

¶ In this wrecked city caught for years between a hardcore Sunni insurgency and U.S.-backed Iraqi troops battling to control it, there have been no front-lines to cross, few safe places to be.

All of Ramadi has been a war-zone: its rubble-strewn streets, its bullet-pocked rooftops, its abandoned living rooms littered with shards of glass.

¶ "We fear everybody, the terrorists, the Americans. We are trapped in between," the man said as two crouching Iraqi soldiers leveled gun-barrels over a rooftop wall across the street, their helmets visible bobbing up and down as they tried to avoid snipers. He gave his name only as Salem.
¶ The scene occurred during a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation in late March aimed at clearing a part of Ramadi commanders said was one of the last insurgent strongholds downtown.
¶ The provincial capital has been remarkably quiet in recent weeks, largely the result of influential sheiks who turned against the insurgency. Violence is down to a few small arms attacks a day and the odd car bombing _ a far cry from the major street battles that raged here daily in recent months and years.
¶ Still, such scenes illustrate what civilians here _ and in troubled cities across Iraq _ have lived through repeatedly. Until late 2006, most parts of this Euphrates River city of 400,000 were so lawless they lacked even a police force residents could turn to for help. And they couldn't call anybody either: the city's telephone infrastructure had been wiped out by insurgents.
¶ Surviving shortages of electricity, water, gas, medicine and food, everybody has a war story to tell.
¶ Every building in town seems touched fighting. And every wasted building, sprayed with starbursts of rocket-fire or splattered with shrapnel, holds within its walls the tale of those who fought there _ and those who died.
¶ Entire blocks, once ruins that housed insurgents, have been leveled completely by American engineers. Whole rows of shops have been "rubbled" to make way for new outposts.
¶ Navigating the city is dangerous, and difficult. Below giant water towers and turquoise mosques, streets are blocked by trash-strewn coils of concertina wire and concrete barriers thrown up by U.S. forces, whose gunbarrels poke from sandbagged posts all over town.
¶ White flags, symbolizing neutrality, flutter ubiquitously from poles hung over homes and mosques. They're carried by shoppers in the street, children walking to school. They're waved from car windows and tied to bulldozers that have begun clearing rubble from the city _ with armed guards protecting them.
¶ In Ramadi, the war has been fought block by block, and it has often literally come home.
¶ Residents have gotten used to U.S. troops blowing off their gates during raids and sheltering in their courtyards during shootouts. They've even gotten used to them sleeping in their beds while they set up overnight observation posts.
¶ During the sweep of Salem's neighborhood, an Iraqi commander went house to house with U.S. Marines in tow, climbing roofs to join gunbattles that scattered bullet casings across floors as families took cover downstairs.
¶ The Iraqi soldiers searched each home, pausing to interrogate families _ and look for insurgents among them.
¶ Some said they hadn't had running water in six months. Some said they lacked fuel for generators. Some said they had been afraid at times even to go out to get food _ or found shops closed when they did.
¶ One man said a neighbor had taken out the garbage a day earlier and stepped on a pressure-plate bomb buried in the road. Apparently meant for American or Iraqi troops, it blew him in half.
¶ One woman said she had moved houses to escape violence in another part of the city. Near her former home, she said Americans shot dead one of her relatives.
¶ Few people wanted to be quoted by name.
¶ "Everyday, fighting, fighting, fighting," another woman said as a tank gunner rattled off .25 mm rounds outside and troops filed out headed to the next house over.
¶ Many residents said they had been terrorized by al-Qaida-linked insurgents. Masked gunmen have forced children to plant roadside bombs, executed or tortured doctors, lawyers, government workers _ anybody seen as uncooperative or sympathetic to coalition troops.
¶ In February, armed men shot one man in the head and left his body in the middle of a street believing wrongly, according to his brother, that he had joined the police. Pinned on the corpse was a note warning others who might do the same.
¶ Insurgents closed an internet cafe because they believed was being used to funnel tips to the Americans, its owner said. Two years ago, guerrillas destroyed the telephone system and cell towers for the same reason _ though two towers have been restored and reception is returning to some outlying areas.
¶ When it's quiet, as it is increasingly these days, young men kick soccer balls and string volleyball nets across the roads. Tractors clear rubble from whole city blocks that were first ruined by fighting, then flattened last year by American engineers to keep insurgents out of them. Public works employees, too, have come out to fix broken sewage pipes that turned roads into rivers.
¶ Men drink tea on corners, pushing prayer beads through their fingers, watching patrolling troops with rockets and heavy weapons walk by. Some wave. Many don't.
¶ Tanks and convoys of Humvees move through the dust, their guns and cannons rotating from side to side as they scan ruins for attackers.
¶ Woman walk with babies. Children play marbles in the dirt.
¶ Most kids have gotten so used to violence, they don't even flinch at the sound of shooting or explosions. That doesn't mean they're unaffected. One parent said his child has had difficulty sleeping after seeing corpses in the street.
¶ Last month after schools reopened in Salem's neighborhood, students and teachers found 17 unidentified decomposing corpses buried beneath two schoolyards.
¶ In another part of the city, a man named Hamid said an American Marine once busted out his living room window with the tip of a gun and began firing at insurgents a few houses away. His small son peeked into the room to watch.
¶ "I pulled him away and told him, 'Don't worry. It's not real,'" Hamid said. "They don't understand what's been happening here, and I don't want them to."