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Ramadi Marines on the front line against Al-Qaeda in Iraq

RAMADI, Iraq (AFP) - From the vantage point of the 17th Street security station, the grim vista of downtown Ramadi stretched out before Marine Corporal Anthony Bell in an apocalyptic expanse of bullet-riddled buildings.


by Thibauld Malterre
Tue Dec 5, 1:36 PM ET

"You have to watch for everything," said Bell of Alpha company, who at 21 is on his second tour in Iraq. "We already had different types of bombs, sniper attacks and a lot of small arms fire."

As he described his life in the shattered downtown of this urban battleground between US forces and Al-Qaeda in Iraq's restive western Al-Anbar province, a fusillade of shots rings out, followed by an explosion.

Just 150 meters (yards) away, Observation Post Firecracker was briefly attacked, with the gunfire ending almost as soon as it started and leaving the marines with no clear targets to fight back against.

"They are harassing us on a daily basis," said another marine, who likened the attacks to a kind of local propaganda campaign. "We know they're ineffective, but the people around here don't."

"We would welcome any firefight the terrorists want to engage in," he added.

Instead of one pitched battle, however, the life of the marines here is one of constant tension and sudden, brief attacks, as they try to regain control over one of Iraq's most dangerous cities.

The 1st battalion of the 6th regiment is just the latest marine unit to take on the harsh job of securing Ramadi's downtown -- a vast sea of drab low-rise pockmarked buildings, punctuated by the occasional minaret.

Earlier in the year, entire neighborhoods of the city had been effectively given up to the insurgents, who chose Ramadi as the place to declare their Islamic Caliphate back in October.

But now, thanks to outposts such as Firecracker and the 17th street station, the marines are back.

According to US military officials, the spike in casualties over the past few months in Al-Anbar province -- the scene of the lion's share of American war dead -- was because of this push back into the city.

"We used to have to fight to go to this station," recalled Captain Sean Dynan whose regular supply runs out to Alpha company keep these marines in food and equipment.

"It is still a bad part of the city. We take extra precautions when we go in, but it is in no way off limits."

The marines do foot patrols in the area, both day and night, moving in erratic zig zags across the trash-strewn streets and occasionally breaking into a short run across intersections.

For the most part, the marines have a pretty negative opinion of the marksmanship of Iraqi gunmen -- whether insurgent or soldier -- dubbing their fully automatic approach with their assault rifles "spray and pray".

But it is the insurgents' small but elite bands of snipers, many of whom, rumor has it, are from outside Iraq, that keep the marines shifting from foot to foot in an effort to reduce their vulnerability to these hidden shooters.

"Make it difficult to be a target, don't stay long on the road, and go to see people inside their houses," Lieutenant Jared Towles told his men before the patrol.

"I told them that not everybody's bad, even if it is sometimes hard to remember that because insurgents are part of the population, but a lot of families live in the area," added the 25-year-old officer.

The men prefer to make their patrols after dark, when their night vision goggles give them a tactical advantage and their only companions are the packs of feral dogs that roam the deserted streets of the city.

As difficult as it seems in a such a complicated battlefield, the marines said they go out of their way to avoid civilian casualties -- not always easy when the attacks are sudden and seemingly come from nowhere.

"When we're on patrol, people will come up to us and say 'I've had enough' and we tell them, 'it's you who can stop it, send your sons to the police,'" said Alpha company commander Captain Kyle Sloan.

"I ask my marines to be very careful at what you shoot at. We only shoot when we know we're gonna kill or wound an insurgent. People have seen that, and now children are playing football nearby," he said.

Other units are not always so careful. Last Tuesday, army soldiers in the northeast of the city fired tank rounds into a building from which insurgents were shooting at them and killed five Iraqi girls, including an infant.

Five minutes' drive from Firecracker is a defunct school for disabled children that has been turned into a station for the city's fledgling police force, which will one day have to take over security duties from the marines.

In a firefight not far from the station a few months ago, several civilians were wounded in the crossfire and taken by the marines to their base hospital -- producing a marked change in the local attitude towards them.

"We treated civilian casualties back in September, and after we started doing that they stopped firing at us for a month-and-a-half," said Dynan.

In recent weeks, though, the shooting has started once again.