Navy SEALs and Villagers band together to stop violence

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http://news.soc.mil/releases/News%20Archive/2008/April/080420-01.html

BALAD, Iraq (Courtesy of CJSOTF-AP Public Affairs, April 20, 2008) – Violence and terror once ruled the streets of Ramadi, Iraq. At one point, fighting was so bad that the majority of the population fled. Today, with help from Coalition Forces, Iraqi Security Forces, and U.S. Special Operations Forces with cooperation from tribal leaders who banded together to stop the violence, the city is seeing a new beginning.

A U.S. Navy Sailor currently on his second deployment to Ramadi described just how intense fighting was during his first tour in 2006.

“We couldn’t conduct a single mission without getting hit,” said the Sailor, who is a veteran of more than 100 combat missions with the Navy SEALs. “Anbar province was just like old wild-west movies. The only difference was that the bad guys here had automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades instead of six-shooters and knives.”

He described one particular mission from his 2006 deployment; a mission where the SEALs were pursing an al-Qaeda cell that was terrorizing the city. During this operation, al-Qaeda fighters aggressively attacked the Navy SEALs for several hours after they had established a temporary position in a house in the heart of Ramadi.

The heavy fighting continued through the night and after daylight broke, the insurgents stepped up their attacks on the SEAL’s position.

“All of a sudden, (the al-Qaeda fighters) opened up on the roof pretty hard with small arms fire and three RPG rounds. The first RPG hit the top of the house and the other two barely missed the roof where our sniper was posted.

“It ends up they were trying to suppress our sniper as one of them laid an IED (improvised explosive device).” The Sailor continued to explain that when it was time for the Navy SEALs to leave, he jumped on the wall next to the exit point and noticed that an IED had been wired to the gate -- which was the only way out of the house. The team needed to find another point of egress. They withdrew into the house and broke through a back wall on an upper floor with a sledgehammer to make their escape via the rooftop of a building behind them.

“This was pretty much a typical day back in 2006,” the Sailor said, as if it were another day at the office. “During this deployment, I can’t recall having any shots even fired at us in Ramadi.”

Civilians like Abu Hakam, a contract interpreter with more than 700 combat missions with the Navy SEALs, also remembers just how violent the city was just a few years ago.

“From the time I got here in 2005, through the first half of 2007, it seemed like we couldn’t go outside the gate without getting shot at,” said Hakam. “The fighting made Ramadi the worse place on earth. There were no real police or army and the city was littered with IEDs. Ramadi would have easily made hell seem like a vacation!”

During that time, Coalition forces were being attacked dozens of times per month and the Navy SEALs conducted two or three missions each day to counter terrorist activity in the city.

While al-Qaeda terrorized the city and Coalition and Special Operations Forces were trying to suppress the violence, the citizens of the city stayed in hiding.

Nizar and Hakam explained that the streets of Ramadi were eerily void of people during that time.

“Children could not play outside because there were so many IEDs everywhere,” Nizar explained. “If the people could afford it, they fled the city.”

According to a U.N. census report, Ramadi’s estimated population in 2003 was 444,582 people. As the fighting increased, approximately 70 percent -- more than 300,000 people -- fled the city because the violence and terror that al-Qaeda was causing.

“Citizens lived in total fear because they have never lived such a tragedy,” explained Sheikh Heiss, president of the Ramadi City Council. “The sons and citizens of Ramadi have never seen the insurgents do anything but cause bloodshed.”

The sheikh described how al-Qaeda would take people to a soccer stadium in the middle of the city and brutally assassinate them so others could see what would happen if they talked to Americans.

“It meant certain death to anyone who talked or even looked at U.S. Forces,” Heiss said.

In July 2005, Heiss found himself living the horrors first hand as he and three of his sons were kidnapped and held for ransom.

“They broke into our house about 3 p.m. We were taking an afternoon nap. When they woke my family and me, we all had several large automatic rifles pointed in our faces. The insurgents then took us to Fallujah and told my sons they would kill me if they did not receive $160,000,” Heiss recounted. “My sons were terrified because I only had about $5,000 at the time.”

One of his sons was released to retrieve the ransom. He desperately went to several tribes in the region to try and raise the money to save his father’s and brothers’ lives.
The sheikh and his two remaining sons were held in captivity for 18 days and subjected to physical and mental torture. Besides enduring countless brutal beatings, the sheikh and his sons were forced to watch as several people were savagely beheaded right in front of them.

“When my son returned with only $120,000, the insurgents handcuffed all of us together and held us for a couple more days before releasing us. When I finally got back to my house, I was so disoriented from the beatings that I did not know where I was or even what day it was.”

After Heiss’ experience with al-Qaeda, he started to rally the other sheikhs in the area to band together to fight off the terrorists.

In September 2006, when al-Qaeda murdered the father and brother of Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, one of the most prominent sheikhs in the region, the area sheikhs decided there had been enough violence. In the traditional ways of the western Sunni tribes, the sheikhs met as a council and the result of that meeting was the formation of the “Anbar Awakening.”

The Anbar Awakening is the unification of the tribes in the area to fight al-Qaeda and any other insurgency that threatens their cities.

The unified front of the sheikhs made an immediate difference to the climate of Ramadi. Within a month of the historic meeting, attacks on Coalition forces started to decrease and continued to decrease for the next several months. Today, Iraqi and Coalition forces may go weeks without being attacked.
As the violence in Ramadi started dissipating, the Navy SEALs were able to shift their focus from pursing al-Qaeda to conducting other activities such as rebuilding communities and strengthening Iraqi Security Forces.

With the support of the local sheikhs, “people realized that the Navy SEALs were there to help clean up their backyard and not to hurt them like the insurgents,” said Nizar, “The people of Ramadi really started to help by reporting who terrorists were within their city.”

“The transition we are experiencing today would not have been possible without the dedication of Coalition forces and Navy SEALs who were in Ramadi during those really tough times,” said the commander of the SEAL team responsible for Ramadi, “Due to their efforts to rid the city of violence, today we’re focused on training Iraqi Security Forces to protect the people and conduct operations to stop terrorists before they can attack,” he continued.

Over the past six months, the Navy SEALs have dedicated more than 600 hours to training more than 250 ISF members in Ramadi.

“It is important to have well trained security teams watching over the people of Ramadi,” one member of the SEAL team emphasized. “With these units fighting to keep their city safe, government officials can continue to move forward with the progress of their country.”

During the last several months, the SEALs were able to set up three free medical clinics where local citizens were seen by Iraqi doctors or U.S. military medical personnel. The clinics served more than 500 Iraqis, many of whom have never had medical care.

“These events give the people of Ramadi the help that many of them cannot afford otherwise,” said Dhaygham al Heiss, son of Sheikh Heiss. “The people of Ramadi are very poor from years of fighting, but now that the Anbar Awakening and Coalition forces are working together, we have pushed al-Qaeda out of Ramadi and made the city much safer.”

The Navy SEALs have also helped reconstruct schools that were damaged and shut down due to the heavy fighting in the city.

“The schools around Ramadi started closing in late 2004,” a principal at a local school said. “Now our doors are open and our classrooms are full again.”

The principal said the schools are not only teaching children, but trying to get classes started for adults as well. She added that teaching people to read and improve their skills with arithmetic will open opportunities for better jobs.

“We have helped with several projects throughout the areas in and around Ramadi including refurbishing schools and building sports-courts,” said the Special Operations Task Force-West civil affairs project officer.

For these special projects, typically, the Task Force will provide funding and local contractors perform the work. This strategy keeps costs down and provides jobs for citizens in the area.

“Projects such as these help people stay involved in positive activities,” said a SEAL involved with a sports-court project. “These projects give people something constructive to do.”

“It has been amazing how far Ramadi has come towards peace in such a short time,” said Dr. Ahmed Ibrahim Salih, the Director General of Health for Anbar province. “The insurgents killed and destroyed everything, including people’s trust. And now, the Americans are trying to rebuild and are gaining the people’s trust.”

Dr. Salih also talked about other signs of normalcy returning to the city.

“It is getting difficult to get around now, not because of the IEDs, but because of traffic,” he said. “People are coming back to Ramadi and are no longer afraid to come out of their homes. Children are playing outside again and going back to school too.”

The once turbulent city is getting a chance for a rebirth now that the SEALs, Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces, and local tribal leaders all did their part to drive out al-Qaeda. The complete evolution of Ramadi will take time, but with patience of the people, diligence of the sheikhs, and continued ramp up of Iraqi Security Forces supported by Coalition forces and the Navy SEALs, Ramadi will continue on the right path for a brighter future.
 
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