On patrol in the "OP Hotel" section of Ramadi, soldiers of 1/506th Infantry Regiment cover both sides of a crossing.
Ive just returned from an embed with 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at a modern Fort Apache in east Ramadi. Thats a favorite stomping ground of the group al-Zarqawi headed, Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
There I was repeatedly machine-gunned, sniped, and mortared as I detail in my ”The New Band of Brothers” article in the current Weekly Standard. And no, it wasnt fun. But its given me a perspective thats perhaps more sanguine than youll hear from desk-bound policy wonks — a perspective shared by those whove been fighting al-Zarqawis henchmen for a long time.
While in Ramadi and earlier in Fallujah, I saw much terrorist handiwork and was underwhelmed. They have some good snipers — one nearly popped the skull of a soldier standing right in front of me. But otherwise they seem genetically incapable of aiming weapons, relying instead on sheer volume of fire and luck. As for their ”ingenuity” with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), from January to mid-May 1st Battalion and its support elements had destroyed 667 of the bombs, inadvertently detonated 378 more without fatalities, and suffered deaths (five total) from only two.
First Battalion and its support elements routinely kills more than five jihadists in a single day. But such an incredible kill ratio is actually disturbing. As I witnessed, no matter how readily theyre mowed down — and with so little success themselves — the bad guys just keep on coming and coming. Their only real ”skill” is fanaticism. It would seem that the death of even so important a leader as al-Zarqawi might have little effect on such people, and Capt. Joe Claburn, commander of C Company, 1st Battalion says so.
”The impact will be minimal at best,” he told me by e-mail. ”Remember, these jihadists typically have no direct ties to their leaders. Al-Zarqawi was a figurehead, and now as a martyr he will continue to be. Someone else will step up into his place as the spiritual leader and self-proclaimed leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.”
Ready for combat — and soon to see it.
He also worries that any favorable impact al-Zarqawis death may be countered by the allegations of civilian killings at Haditha, just northeast of Ramadi. ”They will cast a shadow over our successes yet again and it is frustrating,” he says.
Add to this that al-Zarqawi directly commanded a relatively small number of the bad guys in Iraq, and you might think his death almost meaningless, except that he did apparently plan and execute (Ahem!) some of the most damaging operations of the war. But even were his death only symbolic, it could be a powerful symbol indeed.
In Falluja I spoke with an Iraqi general who frankly told me success on the battlefield meant nothing more than the impact it has on the populace. Al-Zarqawis continued existence had become a terrible embarrassment for both the fledgling Iraqi government and military coalition forces; now hes been sent down to his richly-deserved 72 perpetually renewing devils. ”The more the people trust the government, the easier my job becomes,” the general told me. His job is easier now.
Meanwhile, Claburn says, ”The good feeling has already worn off and we are back to concentrating on our job. There are a lot more bad guys to go after and a lot more things need to happen before we can call this place stable. We are getting there, but its going to take as much patience and determination to win here and throughout Iraq as it has taken to finally kill Al-Zarqawi.”
Michael Fumento (U.S. Army Airborne, 1978-82) has been embedded twice in Al Anbar and paid for his transport, equipment, and medical bills both times. Please support his next trip. View his full photoset from 2006 and 2005. Read Michael Fumentos additional writing on the military, on Iraq, and on the media.