RAMADI--Once the most dangerous place in Iraq, the self-proclaimed capital of the Sunni insurgency, Ramadi has become a bustling, largely peaceful city where residents are starting to repair the damage of nearly four years of heavy fighting.
The dramatic transformation here and in much of western Anbar province is the result of the local Sunni tribal leaders' decision to cooperate with U.S. forces against the Sunni terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq. So while violence rages in and around Baghdad, U.S. soldiers and marines are heartened by such simple sights as a man out washing his car. "Now there's a sign of hope," says Marine Capt. Marcus Mainz. "If a guy is worried about getting killed, he's not going to wash his car."
Awakening. A Bush administration eager to show progress now points to Ramadi, which has undergone an extraordinary change in the past three months. While real, this "Anbar Awakening" may be unsustainable unless the Shiite-led Iraqi government advances political reconciliation. One danger sign: Six cabinet ministers from the main Sunni political bloc quit the government last week to protest inaction by the Shiite leadership.
Still, the improved situation here comes as some relief to the U.S. military, which not long ago had counted an average of 10 to 15 attacks a day in Ramadi alone; now, there's about one attack a day, and no Americans have been reported killed in the city since mid-May (versus seven in July 2006).
Elsewhere in Anbar, five Americans were killed in July, one more than in June but far fewer than the 19 in July 2006.
Abandoned buildings are being refurbished or torn down to make way for new ones. Schools and mosques get priority. "The terrorists tried to kill our education system," remarks local contractor Saad Hammad Al Sharki. "Without that, it makes it easier for the people of Ramadi to join them. So we had to fix the schools and the youth centers first."
The main marketplace is once again busy. Cars are still restricted, to pre-empt car bombs, so people rely on bicycles. Most residents have electricity for as much as 17 hours a day, and the city water system is running again. Sewer lines are being repaired. The government center, practically leveled by insurgent bombings, is open, and a Chamber of Commerce center is being built to help local businesses.
The Justice Center is due to open soon to handle criminal cases against detainees. There are even plans to install solar-powered street lights and to plant trees in parks. "The rest of Iraq should look to Ramadi as an example of what can be done--not only for fighting the terrorists but for rebuilding the city," says Sheik Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, who organized the Anbar Awakening after his father and three brothers were killed by al Qaeda in Iraq.
Stakeholders. Residents' fear that terrorists would kill anyone who cooperated with American forces dissipated once U.S.-funded contracts were approved and no one was killed when the work began. It's all part of the military's "clear, hold, and build" strategy.
"The third component [of that strategy] is to maintain stability because if not, that creates conditions where the insurgents can come back," says Col. John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which oversees Ramadi. "We created local councils [and] we route all the decisions through them. That builds stakeholders in the community."
Since April, more than $15 million worth of reconstruction projects have been completed here, mostly rubble removal. And there's another $50 million in projects ongoing, approved, or proposed.
The Iraqi government has pledged $45 million but hasn't delivered much of it.
That's the sort of inaction that reinforces Sunni anger toward the government. "Funding from the Iraqi government is the one thing that's holding everything back," says Marine Lt. ames Hanson. "It also discredits the Iraqi government because the people are looking to us for help, when they should be looking to their own government."
By Stephanie Gaskell