U.S. Marines in Iraq's Sunni Heartland Prepare to Pull Back From Once-Violent Cities

Violence has plummeted in the insurgency's birthplace, but the fragile gains could be reversed.

A U.S. marine watches children play in the Iraqi city of Ramadi.

A U.S. marine watches children play in the Iraqi city of Ramadi.

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RAMADI, IRAQ—The squad of Marines from the 2/9 Weapons Company is understandably nervous about moving through the market district in downtown Ramadi. Most are on their first tour here, but they well know that these were once some of the bloodiest streets for American troops in a city at one time the heart of a Sunni insurgency that harbored Al Qaeda in Iraq. So when a truck driver slams the gate of his vehicle, the marines briefly flick their rifles up, eyes alert and scanning rooftops.

But the streets are crowded and calm. Many residents, in fact, are surprised to see the six Americans on a joint patrol with the Iraqi police. "What are you doing here?" a carpet store owner asks casually. "We thought you'd stopped patrolling."

In the coming months, the marines will leave the cities in Anbar province, including Ramadi and Fallujah, and pull back to the large bases outside of urban centers. For the Americans, it's a race to shore up the Iraqi police and government so that they will have to leave those bases as infrequently as possible. "We're in the last 10 yards of this mission," says Maj. Gen. John Kelly, who leads coalition forces in western Iraq, including Anbar.

But make no mistake, he adds, serious challenges remain, including infighting between tribes, an ongoing flood of released prisoners, and the failure of the Shiite-dominated central government to provide resources to the province. Then, of course, there are the coming provincial elections, which are needed to shift power away from unpopular and recalcitrant former exiles elected after most Sunnis boycotted the previous vote. It's this convergence of events, each of which alone could plunge the region back into chaos, that has prompted Gen. David Petraeus to repeatedly describe the remarkable decline in violence in Iraq as "fragile" and "still reversible."

Certainly, the decline in carnage has been stunning. Two years ago, internal Marine intelligence officers had all but written off Anbar province, concluding that the fight had been lost both socially and politically. There were dozens of roadside bombings, shootings, and spasms of chaotic violence every week just in the 2/9 Weapons Company's area of east Ramadi. Today, there are fewer than a dozen violent incidents a week in the entire province. Most of them are intertribal in nature and tend to be settled privately, usually at gunpoint.

The marines won't be decreasing their numbers when they consolidate forces to larger camps, at least not right away. And few are predicting an immediate spike in violence when U.S. troops retreat to their bases. After all, the increase in American forces never was the main reason for the sharp decline in violence. Instead, by 2005— long before the surge—the numerous Sunni tribes in Anbar were already considering an alliance with U.S. forces, whom they viewed as the only counterweight to ascendant Shiites in Iraq, says Joost Hiltermann, deputy Middle East program director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. The particularly barbaric violence at the hands of AQI later became a rallying cry, one touted by the U.S. military. But it was the tribal calculations that made and have kept the peace in a region long fearful of the government in Baghdad.

Even today, there's little presence here of Iraq's national army, comprised mostly of Shiites and Kurds. When a local Iraqi Army unit moved from outside Ramadi to Diyala recently to aid in security, the people of the city didn't even notice. What they do notice are the Iraqi police, local Sunnis who patrol and man checkpoints in their distinctive bright blue uniforms.

Former foes. Many of the police are new hires, former insurgents who have renounced violence at the behest of tribal leaders. They came from groups like the so-called Sons of Iraq, militia units that incorporated many former insurgents into local security forces. But the central government agreed to integrate only about 40 percent of the SOI into the police, leaving the rest without stable work and fueling concern that many will return to violence.