RAMADI, IRAQ, — The Marines in Ramadi are still searching for their kind of war.
It is not for lack of an enemy. In the heart of this provincial capital, where the Marines routinely run convoys and patrols down a 4½-mile stretch of road, hidden bombs explode daily, leaving Americans riddled with shrapnel, if not ripped apart.
Guerrillas pop out and take shots with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. The Marines are even exposed at bases at each end of the downtown area — mortar shells hit regularly, and snipers’ bullets occasionally zing through the air.
But when the Marines fire back or give chase, they find the insurgents have slipped into the palm groves and narrow alleys and mosques, melting in with the civilians and floating away like so many dust motes.
“This phase is a lot worse than the first part of the war,” said Staff Sgt. Jose Gomez, 28, of Beeville, Texas, just back from 24-hour guard duty at the besieged government center downtown. “They know we’re here; they know what we do; they know our routine. We’re used to coming in, blowing stuff up. Now we wait to get hit.”
To listen to these Marines is to hear the voices of young men frustrated by an adaptable and often unseen foe. Many said they were willing, even eager, to do battle. And their anxieties have not resulted in outright rebellion, as did those of an Army Reserve platoon that refused on Oct. 13 to transport fuel through insurgent-controlled territory on what it called a “suicide mission.”
But members of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines are no longer taking the offensive against a conventional army, as they did during their first tour in the spring of 2003. Now they are fighting a guerrilla war, which has proved a much greater challenge than many of them once thought — a sentiment echoed by troops across Iraq.
The battalion arrived on the front lines with the insurgents in early September, in a dense Sunni-dominated city that is virulently hostile to the U.S. occupation. The city of 400,000 is the capital of Anbar Province, which includes the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. Some U.S. officials insist that they must regain control in the province for legitimate elections to take place in January.
In six weeks in Ramadi, six members of this battalion have been killed and at least 72 wounded.
“It’s scary sometimes,” said a hospital corpsman, Hulester Holley, 21, of Tulare, Calif. “Sometimes we get hit so quick I don’t know who’s hit or what the injuries are.”
In this guerrilla war, the Marines said, strict rules of engagement have kept their hands tied. They said the Iraqi police and National Guard are unhelpful at best and enemy agents at worst, raising doubts about President Bush’s assertion that local forces would soon help relieve the policing duties of the 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
The Marines said that they could use better equipment from the Pentagon and that they fear that Americans are ignorant of the hardships they face.
The day-to-day goal of the Marines in Ramadi is to keep open and secure the major east-west artery, which runs through the downtown area and which the Marines call Route Michigan. The main 4½-mile stretch runs past a crowded market and several mosques, all peppered with insurgents. Commanders say the U.S. presence in town is crucial to keeping Ramadi from becoming another Fallujah. The Marines have bases on each end and four observation posts in buildings along the way, the most crucial one inside the provincial government compound, which overlooks the market and is attacked almost daily.
“This isn’t hell, but what we do is hell,” said Sgt. Clarence Sentell, 25, of Artesia, N.M.
The biggest question, the Marines said, is whether the Iraqi people want them here at all.
“This is Vietnam,” said Cpl. Daniel Planalp, 21, of San Diego. “I don’t even know why we’re over here fighting. We’re fighting for survival. The Iraqis don’t want us here. If they wanted us here, they’d help us. They’re certainly not helping us in this city.”
Planalp was speaking while driving a Humvee in a 10-vehicle convoy that crosses Route Michigan twice a day to deliver food to bases. Some Marines call the run “the suicide train.”
On one recent morning, nine bombs went off or were discovered on the route, an average of one every half-mile.
During the invasion, “we knew who we were fighting,” said Lt. Jeff Tew, 24, the convoy commander. “They wore uniforms. They stood and fought. We’re not trained for this, but we’re getting better.”
“Iraq is sort of a keystone in the Middle East,” said Cpl. Gene Harper, 32, a former Manhattan resident who enlisted the day after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. “If we can make this a model for security and stability, other countries in the Middle East will follow.”
In the government center, Cpl. John Rios, 29, of Corpus Christi, Texas, rested on a cot and said, “Before, during the invasion, it was a free-fire zone.”
“Now, we have a lot of rules of engagement to protect the civilians,” he said. “But the enemy doesn’t follow the same rules as we do. They use civilians as shields; they use mosques against us; they use graveyards.”
The solution was to let the Iraqi security forces take charge, he added, “but honestly, they’re not ready.”
Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Jaime, 35, sitting beside Rios, said: “I don’t know if they’re intimidated or scared, or maybe they share the feeling that we don’t belong here. I don’t know what it is.”
The Marines expressed just as much frustration at the relative lack of helpfulness among local civilians.
“We fight the muj, and they’re caught in between,” said Cpl. Shane Joyner, 23, of Yerington, Nev., using the shorthand term for mujahedeen. “I think there’d be a lot more outward support if the muj weren’t around.”
Sgt. Kevin Armentrout, 24, of Lakeland, Fla., said during a poker game: “It’s just like growing up in the ghetto. If the cops roll in and ask where the crack dealers are, they’re not going to tell. Nobody wants that problem.”
The sergeant said one thing the Marines could use from the Pentagon is better gear. Marines traditionally complain that the Army gets the best equipment. But given the perils of this war, he said, it is criminal that some Marines have to use makeshift armored vehicles, driving around in trucks with welded doors that look like “something out of Mad Max.”
The 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, which preceded this battalion in Ramadi, suffered numerous casualties because of a shortage of properly armored vehicles, the Marines in Ramadi said.
Back in a bunkhouse at the Snake Pit, Marines mulled over what Americans back home think of them and whether they are fighting a forgotten war in a forgotten land.
“They don’t have a clue what’s going on here,” said Cpl. Patrick Hansen, 24, of Tewksbury, Mass. “The Iraq story will come in fourth on the TV news, behind Betsy the Cow having a first-prize calf at the county fair. Then it’ll go back to Bob the weatherman.”
“All I heard back home was, ‘Once we get Osama, this whole thing will be over,’ ” he said. “It’s like the Iraqis here saying, ‘Once we get rid of Saddam, it’ll be over.’ Well, right now, it’s far from over.”