Lasting Peace? An Iraq Town Shrugs Off Terror

By in Rawah, Iraq

Severed heads dumped at the market, deadly road-side explosions. That used to be the depressing reality in the small town of Rawah in Iraq's Anbar Province. Now, though, peace may be at hand -- and the locals are cooperating with the US Marines.

It is a pleasant evening for Police Chief Tarek Subhi Hussein in the small Iraqi town of Rawah. Dinner with the US Marine Corps officers stationed in his city, located in the Anbar Province, was a complete success. The chit-chat -- at a table heaped with chicken and kebab -- centered on the police chief's two wives, his children and his grandchildren. His plan of taking a third wife was met with a grin from the Americans.

After duly admiring the police chief's new sofa set, it's time for tea. And for some good news. A subordinate brings in a long list: Fully 79 young men from Rawah want to join the local police force. For Chief Subhi, the list provides yet more evidence that the worst may be over. "The men from Rawah want to take their lives into their own hands and protect their families," he says.

There isn't much to Rawah: a few thousand flat-roofed houses, a few vegetable gardens and dusty palm trees. A handful of junk-shops line the streets along with stands selling gasoline -- often not readily available in Iraq -- in plastic bottles. The sewer system is leaky and putrid effluent lies puddled in the street. Like most cities and towns in Anbar Province, Iraq's biggest, Rawah is located on the Euphrates River, which waltzes its way through the moonscape of the Iraqi desert. Some 25,000 people live in Rawah, many of them former soldiers.

Regional Center of the Insurgency

Before the war, Rawah was a haven for retired functionaries in Saddam Hussein's regime. Saddam's trade minister was likewise from Rawah; he made sure that his hometown was always well taken care of. The town's four police officers had it pretty easy. But then the war came, and after that, terrorism. Rawah became the regional center of the insurgency. The first targets attacked by al-Qaida of Mesopotamia -- the Iraqi offshoot of the terror organization -- were US troops stationed in Rawah: first Army units, then the Marines.

"In the first two weeks, after we Marines got to the region in July 2006, we lost seven men," says First Lieutenant James Brobyn, of the Apache Company of the 3rd Light-Armored Reconnaissance, based in Rawah. Four died when a suicide-bomber drove a car loaded with explosives into their combat outpost. Three more lost their lives when their vehicle drove over an IED. The insurgency here began in early 2005 and continued until the middle of this year. Nearly every day US Marines were attacked in and around Rawah, if not by suicide-bombers or explosives, then with rockets, grenades or rifle fire. The Marines have lost 20 men in Rawah alone.

At the beginning the population supported the fight "against the occupiers," says Chief of Police Subhi. But that changed when the citizens themselves became targets of the insurgents. "Terrorists wanted to make Rawah the center for al-Qaida and took their revenge for those who opposed it," Subhi says. More than 20 were unlucky enough to be killed in attacks on the Marines, but many others were slaughtered at night in their homes by Iraqis and foreigners belonging to al-Qaida of Mesopotamia. The 16 men who joined the police force shortly after the US invasion found themselves in an especially precarious position; five of them were murdered. One was beheaded, his head thrown into a banana crate in the market square. The father of one of the other officers was killed when his house was blown up. For fear of what else might befall their families, most of the other officers gave up, leaving only four to combat the overwhelming violence. "To be a police officer was a death sentence," Subhi says.

Just Talking

So what changed? Why, suddenly, do 79 men apply to join the police in a single day? Rawah has, relatively speaking, become a peaceful place once again. The last attack -- an insurgent threw a hand grenade over the wall of a barracks where some 60 Marines were stationed -- took place over a month ago. And life on the streets seems to be returning to normal. During the day there are boys running around on the streets; in the café of the little market hall, young men play pool. Mothers take their daughters shopping. Even at night there are people outside on the streets. One night recently, a group stood outside of a well-lit hair salon warming their hands over a little fire. And just talked.

"At some point, people simply had enough," Subhi says. The men in the town wanted a future for their families and decided the path to that future involved working with, rather than against, the Americans. Whereas before, people had been paralyzed with fear, they began informing US troops about insurgents' activities. Others would speak up if they saw suspicious-looking characters on the streets of Rawah.

The situation, Subhi is quick to point out, remains explosive, and he opens up a few photos on his laptop. They're images of weapons and troves of explosive material confiscated in the past few weeks -- enough material for a dozen car bombs and IEDs, enough assault rifles and ammunition for a long fight. Things are not as peaceful in Rawah as they look. The enemy is not gone, he's just out of sight for the moment. "Of course they're still out there," Subhi says.

The end of the reign of terror in Rawah was made possible by the so-called "Sunni awakening" in Anbar Province. Influential sheiks in the province decided to change their allegiances in the middle of the year, and Rawah followed suit. This situation, noticeably eased, enabled the Marines to change their tactics. Whereas before they could only drive around in armored vehicles, they could now patrol on foot.

'Making Ourselves Superfluous'

"To win hearts and minds," the slogan goes. And the people of Rawah seem to have developed a certain amount of trust in the heavily-armed, still-daunting US soldiers in their midst. The Americans, accordingly, have given the growing number of police more responsibilities: they are now accountable for the town's security -- for the security of their families -- themselves. The Marines came to Rawah to guarantee security and then hand over the job to the Iraqis, says First Lieutenant Brobyn. "We are here to make ourselves superfluous."

That this seems to be working became clear when Police Chief Subhi got an urgent message late one night. A police report came in that scouts had spotted a local al-Qaida heavyweight at a farm outside of town.

What happened next shows how responsibility is being transferred. At first, the Iraqis suggested that the Marines take the lead, going in first with their armored vehicles. But the US officers politely pointed out that such vehicles are extremely loud and might tip off their quarry. The police go back to the drawing board and, in the end, come up with a plan in which the Marines appear only in a supporting role. A few hours later, the plan is carried out and the suspect is nabbed. A big little victory is what the Marines call it.

There are now 345 Iraqi police and 100 Marines policing Rawah. For now, the town is peaceful, if only barely. There is still a long way to go to until peace is established in Anbar Province. Rawah, like many of the cities in the region, is still in the middle of a war, but perhaps the decisive phase has arrived.

In the coming months, many still-open questions will have to be answered. What will happen when the Marines leave? Is the local police force strong enough to keep the peace? What will happen when the money gets tight and hopeful police cadets find themselves on the streets again? Will these frustrated men use their new skills in the service of the insurgency? "I wish I had a crystal ball," says First Lieutenant Brobyn, whose Apache Company has been stationed here four times already, for six months each time. "I hope that the people of Rawah can succeed in making things go forward."

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