Five years into the war in Iraq, there are names that conjure up some of the darkest images of the fighting: Ramadi, Haditha, Fallujah.
These places in the western province of al-Anbar have seen some of the fiercest fighting and atrocities: In Fallujah, four civilian contractors were burned and mutilated. In Haditha, 24 Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. Marines.
Al-Anbar province — a cradle of the Sunni insurgency — looked all but lost just a year ago. Since then, it's made a turnaround that has surprised even those who fought there. Among them is Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly.
He was at the battle of Fallujah back in 2004 — the first one, that is — and both his sons fought in the second battle just a few months later.
Kelly returned last month to command all forces in western Iraq and stepped into a world much changed.
"If you were to move into Ramadi, Fallujah, Haditha, al-Qaim — the whole river valley — you would see thriving commerce," Kelly tells Renee Montagne from Camp Fallujah.
Kelly says he witnessed the after-school rush while driving toward Ramadi recently and it was "just exactly like any kind of large city school with students ... going home with their bags and all that kind of thing."
But Kelly, who is on his third tour in Iraq, cautions that the province is still a dangerous place.
"There are still remnants of al-Qaida looking for the opportunity to either hurt us or the police or the sheiks or the mayors," he says. "Those are really the people, frankly, they're targeting now because the real threat to their existence is the police. And we've got about 24,000 police in the Anbar province who are taking the majority of the casualties here."
Help from Residents
To counteract the violence, residents of the province have joined groups referred to as Awakening Councils, Concerned Local Citizens groups and the Sons of Iraq.
"The Awakening movement is not a bunch of armed guys. They are the leadership within the province, particularly in the Ramadi-Fallujah area, and they're developing — and this is a good thing — into a political party," Kelly explains. "The other organizations you talk about — Sons of Iraq, Concerned Local Citizens, those kinds of things — in some cases, in fact, they are being paid. And the idea is they're augmenting the police effort."
Many of those residents will likely shift into other jobs as work becomes more plentiful, Kelly says.
"As an example, I talk to police officers through interpreters a lot. Did they grow up as little boys wanting to be police officers in Fallujah? A lot of them will tell you they'd rather be a graphic artist, or, you know, an electrician or go to college to become an engineer. Right now, that's not possible for them, but what is possible for them is a job as a police officer," he says.
Women, too, are becoming part of the security effort.
"In the Fallujah area, they did come to us about the issue of female suicide bombers because the police felt as though our female Marines, even though they were females patting down females, that they weren't doing it aggressively enough," he says. "What we did was we started a small six-day training program. They don't carry firearms, but we give them some basic pistol training. We're hoping, once the men get used to that — the male police — that we can move on and perhaps get into a ladies' auxiliary or something within the police department and then full membership sometime down the road."
The military is reaching out to women in other ways as well, Kelly says. "We have women's initiatives and work with women leadership. We have a really nice women's center in downtown Ramadi where women go in for vocational training. ...
"There's a lot of things you can do over here that you can hire local folks, and I'll give you one example. As we looked at the problems of overcrowding and just funding in some of the jails, we found a way to put some people to work and to make the conditions in the jails better by hiring local women in Fallujah to cook a couple of meals a day. Laundry services — again, find some women that need to make money and hire them to do that. And there's not a lot of resistance by the male population about it," he says.
Hope for the Future
Kelly says the Marines are looking forward to a time when they can withdraw.
"That means the job is done, you know, the Iraqi government can stand up on its own two feet, training wheels off. That means the people out here in al-Anbar province that most of us have gotten fairly fond of have some hope for the future," he says. "As far as withdrawal goes, I mean, you know, to me it's event-based. My recommendation would be that we take a look-see at what happens for a few months after the surge is off and if it holds, then we can start withdrawing."
Kelly points to a recent trip to Haditha as a moment that defines for him how the war is going:
"I was walking around with a delegation the other day; we were up in Haditha. Haditha was an ugly, ugly, ugly city less than a year ago. We landed in a landing zone in the Osprey airplane. That landing zone is a soccer field," he says. "Less than a year ago, the al-Qaida marched out 12 police officers, had all of their families and the local leadership, sheiks and whatnot, in the stands, and then they cut each one of their heads off one by one. Today, we walked through Haditha without any helmet, without any flak jacket on. That kind of thing is startling — the lack of violence and the normalcy that I've seen."