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Insurgency Finds Success in Ramadi


Next we'll talk to a recent visitor to Ramadi. He's Bing West, a retired Marine and - there really is no such thing as a retired Marine, is there, Mr. West?

Mr. BING WEST (Veteran, U.S. Marines; Writer, Slate.com): No, there isn't.

INSKEEP: Oh, okay. Former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Reagan administration; he has just completed a visit to Ramadi, which is his ninth trip there since the war began. And good morning.

Mr. WEST: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And we should mention that you report for Slate.com. I want to just mention that you drove a civilian SUV through Ramadi in 2004 and walked around town unarmed. Could you do that today?

Mr. WEST: You couldn't get a block today before you'd be bumped off.

INSKEEP: What's happened?

Mr. WEST: Down the road from Ramadi is the fractious city of Fallujah. And the Marines took that city in the end of 2004. And many of the al-Qaida then rushed up the street to Ramadi and gradually dug in there. And then what happened in Ramadi was the Sunni sheikhs made a deal with the Marines that they would take back control of their city if they could have their own police and soldiers who would be Sunnis as well as Shiites.

And the population of Ramadi turned out to vote in the last election, and al-Qaida said no, and they ignored al-Qaida and al-Qaida began a systematic campaign of assassinating the sheikhs and, as a result, the middle class pulled out - the dentists, the doctors, the professors, the sheikhs - they're all gone, and the city is a ghost town now.

It's probably down to about one-fourth the size it used to be, and al-Qaida is dug in like ticks and it's a war zone; that's what's happened.

INSKEEP: So this is a situation where the campaign of assassinations by insurgents has - well, let's be honest - it's been successful.

Mr. WEST: It's been darn successful! They killed 50 or 60 Sunnis who lined up to join the army with one huge bomb, and then they systematically went after the sheikhs. And, today, you drive up and down those streets, and if you're an American, you're in a firefight within half-an-hour. There's no place you go without getting into a firefight.

INSKEEP: Did you drive around town in the way that you have to do today?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: Excuse me for laughing. This time I drove with my closest and best friends - a squad of Marines - and I was kidding them a little bit as one Marine moved toward another, you know, hey, what are you guys doing, you know, come on. And they said, oh, yeah, we'll show you. And they sure did.

Down one street there was an IED that blew up right in front of us. Down the next street, we got into a gunfight, and wherever we went it was just a war zone, and it will remain that way until the Iraqi leaders decide that they're going to pull together their courage and take back that city.

INSKEEP: It's no secret that there's a quite limited number of Marines there in a - well, a medium sized city. There's a battalion of Marines there.

Mr. WEST: Correct, but the issue isn't the Americans. General Casey, who's the overall commander there - he understands exactly what has to be done and he'd do it tomorrow. I mean, the issue is the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad is paralyzed.

On the one hand, they know they have to do something. On the other hand, they cannot find a leader who's going to stand up and say, I'm taking that city back and, if it comes to a street fight, there are going to be Iraqi soldiers going down those streets and taking that city back.

But they're so worried about the political images that they're feckless. The Iraqi leaders just won't get off their duffs and do what they know they have to do.

INSKEEP: They face some limitations now, don't they? Because there was so much work done to bring Sunnis into a government of national unity, and now you have to avoid a situation where they drop out of that government again?

Mr. WEST: That's a fair point, but at some particular point, one has to be able to go to the Sunnis and say, now look, you know that that city is systematically being ruined by this current situation. Now, let's all get together and solve this darn thing. And so far, that hasn't happened.

This idea that we're going to reach out to the Sunni and the Sunni insurgents may understand that they have to put aside their arms - a little bit like the IRA did in northern Ireland - that's a good hope, but a hope isn't a plan, and the Iraqi leadership needs a plan as well as a hope, and they don't have that yet.

INSKEEP: Does the Iraqi leadership have the troops or police who could control Ramadi?

Mr. WEST: You hit on the $64,000 question. The Marines and the American Army soldiers - they can control Ramadi, but you're dead-on with that question. Ramadi is a real test. I believe that the Iraqi army can control Ramadi. I do not believe the Iraqi police can control Ramadi.

INSKEEP: Secretary West, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. WEST: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Bing West is a former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Reagan administration, and he writes for Slate magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.