"I just want everyone to know who Matthew LaPlante is...
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IN SUNNI CAPITAL, CHAOS STILL REIGNS

Governor can’t even protect own family; Soldiers — often AWOL — lack legitimacy, basic supplies and weapons.

Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune
Sept. 29, 2005

RAMADI, Iraq — Bullet-riddled and mortar-scarred, the walls of this provincial capital's center of government tell its story. The damage is both old and new: From American troops, as they secured this city in the spring of 2003, and from insurgents, as they have tried to wrest control away from the Americans ever since.

Gun battles have erupted here lately, at least once a week. Mortar and rocket attacks are common.

Meanwhile, the work of building a government continues inside walls protected by the U.S. Marine Corps. A city council has been formed. Tribal sheiks meet with military and municipal officials once a week.

And the provincial governor of Al Anbar Province, one of the most heavily guarded — and targeted — men in the nation, each day arrives at work to try to restore order to a land that is, by all accounts, in chaos.

President Bush and his advisers say the U.S. military will leave Iraq when local government and military can take charge of security.

But in Al Anbar Province, the nation's largest, and home to more than 1 million Iraqis, government and military officials say any meaningful, sustainable transfer of power is years away.

So even as patience wears thin in the United States, Al Anbar Governor Ma'amoun Sami Rashid al-Awani won't so much as entertain the thought of an American pullout.

"Even the idea of an American withdrawal, without a substitute, somebody to replace it, this is not good idea at all," al-Awani said in an interview in his Ramadi Government Center office. "They cannot withdraw."

A deadly job
Al Anbar's first governor following the U.S. invasion of Iraq resigned as a condition of having his three sons released by kidnappers. Less than a year later, his replacement was forced out by the provincial council.

The next man in the volatile succession was abducted just days after taking office. His body was found three weeks later, blindfolded and bound to a gas cylinder, in an insurgent safehouse.

The enormous, expressive man now hulked behind the ornate wooden desk in the governor's office has, since his May appointment, survived multiple assassination attempts — including one at a local mosque in which a sheik from his tribe was slain.

But al-Awani is confident that an increasing number of people in Al Anbar are willing to work with him toward establishing peace in the province.

Many in the province, however, are unaware that al-Awani's own son was kidnapped from school earlier this month. The teenager was held for more than a week before being released after a ransom was paid, according to Iraqi government officials.

Al-Awani tightly controlled the release of news about the kidnapping — not for fear of his son's life, he says, but because the people of Al Anbar do not need to hear news that makes them question the stability of their new government.

Even with friendly local media, though, al-Awani says the work of bringing order to chaos will be slow going.

Police stations are being rebuilt — at least eight have been destroyed by insurgents in the past two years — and training is under way for Iraqi military brigades that will be headquartered in Al Anbar.

But, al-Awani acknowledged, it is unsafe for most police officers to leave their station.

"Right now the traffic police, they are the only ones who are working," he said.

Responding to serious offenses is left to local families, tribes and other members of the community. And al-Awani said he does not know how long it will be until residents can count on their own government to provide day-to-day security.

"Right now the ones who are responsible for security are the Americans," he said.

But how much control do U.S. troops — approximately 32,000 of them are in the region — maintain over Al Anbar?

Who's in charge?
Those called "insurgents" and "terrorists" by the U.S. and Iraqi forces — they are known simply as "the fighters" here — have the run of much of Ramadi, though U.S. commanders dispute who maintains actual control.

"We are in control," boasted Col. John Gronski, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which oversees infantry operations in the area. "I can have any piece of land in this city, any time I want."

Gronski's associates have proved as much in Fallujah and Tal Afar, cities that U.S. and Iraqi forces have virtually swept clean of insurgent fighters in past months.

Ramadi, scene of about a quarter of American deaths in Iraq over the past month, would be a grander, and probably bloodier, challenge.

Even if coalition troops were to stage a major offensive in the provincial seat — and some here say the beginning stages of such an action are under way — they do not have the troop strength to hold the ground for a long period.

Even in Fallujah, said to be many times safer today than before U.S. forces staged a counteroffensive against insurgent fighters there in November, U.S. military convoys are unable to drive through town. The roads remain so dangerous, in fact, that U.S. Army fuel trucks based in Taqaddum follow a 130-mile roundabout route to bring gas to the base near Ramadi, rather than take the 10-mile route that would take their convoys through Fallujah.

In any case, some Army officials note, in an area of the country already seething with anger toward its occupiers, the secondary effects of an offensive in the capital city would not be constructive.

Though he is eager to rid his city of insurgent fighters, al-Awani is not willing to see his home come under an American siege.

But the Iraqi-grown security that al-Awani needs — and U.S. forces are counting on to allow them to go home — doesn't look to be in place anytime soon.

Absent Army
Assembling a new Iraqi Army, to replace the one built by Saddam, would have taken time and patience anyway. But with insurgent fighters targeting enlistees, the effort — especially in Al Anbar — has moved with all the swiftness of a battalion of soldiers marching through soft desert sand.

The Iraqi Security Force is seeking to place 5,000 soldiers in Al Anbar. But two years into the building of this nation's new military, it has met less than two-fifths of that goal.

"I would say there are probably under 2,000 right now," said Brig. Gen. James Williams, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Augmentation Command Element, whose responsibilities include helping to train Iraqi recruits.

And at any given time, Williams acknowledged, up to 20 percent of the Iraqi Army in this area is listed as absent without leave.

"They have people that leave, for what they call their leave period and sometimes they don't come back," Williams said. "Typically these are new recruits, typically coming into the unit, who wanted to do something for their country but they decided, maybe this is a little bit crazier than I thought."

Compounding that problem are difficulties getting contractors to accept jobs with the Iraqi Security Force, Williams said. For example, he said, it is sometimes difficult to find contractors willing to build barracks for Iraqi soldiers.

"Some contractors don't show up, because, depending on what you look at Ramadi is the second or third most dangerous city in the world," Williams said.

But even soldiers who answer the call and stick to it maintain a dim view of the current state of Al Anbar — and their ability to take charge of it any time soon.

Families targeted
Iraqi soldiers and their families are targeted for kidnapping, torture and even beheading by insurgent fighters. So for many, all but their closest confidants believe they are working as truckers, fishermen or foreign laborers, far away from home.

For their risks, new enlistees take in about $400 a month — and typically receive every third week off.

Some are devoted. Even after insurgents kidnapped and tortured four members of his family in Baghdad, Adu Jabar Mutlak Adulani returned to serve in uniform.

"If we do not defend our nation, who will? The terrorists?" he asked. "We want to depend on ourselves."

Adulani and his comrades, stationed in Al Anbar, are confident of their training — which they received, garrison-style, under the tutelage of U.S. Marines. But they say training will only take them so far.

"We lack underwear, blankets, boots and clothes and our weapons are old," said Muhammad Adidul-Husseil, who also comes from Baghdad. "And the food — the chicken — it is inedible."

Lt. Col. Ghanem Mohammad Shbot Al Zehiri took issue with the complaint about the chicken — the contractor who provides his soldiers food is working to improve, he said.

But Zehiri did not deny his troops are lacking basic support and supplies.

"The Iraqi army, right now, is not ready," Zehiri said. "We need a great deal many things. We need an air force. We need artillery. We do not have these things. We do not even have mortars."

And even if the Iraqi army was able to muster all the bodies and weapons it needs to adequately take over the American occupation, military commanders say it is likely that it would still be considered an occupation.

Most of the soldiers in the Iraqi Security Force are from the nation's eastern, predominantly Shiite areas. Most of Al Anbar is composed of Sunnis.

With sparks of civil war already flying between militant groups from the two Islamic sects, Zehiri said an American withdrawal could fuel an inferno.

"There would be bloodshed," he said.