Michael Ware


TIME: The Most Dangerous Place

On a harrowing trip inside Iraq's toughest city, TIME gets an up-close view of the U.S.'s daily battles against the insurgents. An eyewitness account reveals why the war remains as deadly as ever

It's another sweltering afternoon in the most dangerous place in Iraq, and the men of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, are looking to pick a fight. First Lieut. Grier Jones splits his 30-odd-man platoon into two squads and sets them loose on the streets of Ramadi. They run block to block, covering one another as they sprint across intersections. Insurgents bob their heads out of homes to catch a glimpse of the Marines--"turkey peeking," as the troops call it--a sign that they are preparing to attack. "We come out here every day, and we get shot at," Jones tells an Iraqi woman who speaks American-accented English. "Where are the bad guys?" She falls silent. Outside, a blue sedan peels away. "Watch that car," a Marine yells, sensing a possible ambush.

His instincts are right. At the next intersection, the Marines duck into a house. Suddenly a machine gun lets rip, spewing bullets around them. "Where's it coming from?" a Marine yells. Immediately, shooting opens up from a second direction. Jones gets his men to the roof to repel the two-sided attack. "Rocket!" screams a grunt, unleashing an AT4 rocket at one of the insurgent positions. Men reel from the blast's concussion. The shooting from the east stops. But as Jones peers over a cement wall to locate the second ambush position, a 7.62-mm round whizzes by. "Whoa, that went right over my head," he says, smiling. As the Marines on the roof fire at the insurgents, Jones orders a squad to push toward the enemy position. Then the enemy weapons go quiet; the insurgents are apparently withdrawing to conserve their energy. Jones radios back to his commanders. "We saw the enemy do a banana peel back, then peel north." He chuckles. "This is every day in Ramadi."

There's no reason to believe that the Americans' battle against Iraqi insurgents is going to get better. With U.S. support for the war sinking, the Bush Administration is eager to show that sufficient progress is being made toward quelling the insurgency to justify a drawdown of the 133,000 troops in Iraq. The U.S. praised the naming of a new Iraqi Cabinet last week, even though it includes some widely mistrusted figures from the previous government. And even as commanders try to turn combat duties over to Iraqi forces and pull U.S. troops back from the front lines, parts of Iraq remain as deadly as ever. At least 18 U.S. troops died last week, raising the total killed since the invasion in March 2003 to 2,456.

Nowhere is the fighting more intense than in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and for the moment the seething heart of the Sunni-led insurgency. The city remains a stronghold of insurgents loyal to Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who U.S. intelligence believes is hiding in an area north of the city. In recent weeks, the soldiers and Marines in Ramadi have come under regular assault, forcing commanders last week to order reinforcements to the besieged city. In the past year, the Army's 2/28th Brigade Combat Team, the unit the Marines are attached to, has lost 79 men in Ramadi--yet the brigade's commander, Colonel John Gronski, says, "The level of violence remains about the same."

TIME spent a week with Kilo Company, the 120-person unit that goes head to head with the insurgents every day. The goal is to lure al-Qaeda into attacks, which Kilo Company has been doing successfully: in a single week, five men were wounded, three foot patrols were ambushed, and there were unrelenting attacks from small-arms fire and mortars. The experience of the Marines in Ramadi illuminates some of the shortcomings of the U.S. strategy for defeating the insurgency. The commander has only one brigade to secure the town, even though U.S. officers say privately that at least three are needed. Among the troops, frustration is growing: many officers say that the U.S. is too lenient in its dealings with the enemy, allowing too many captured insurgents to go free, and that soldiers can do little more than act as international police. Others claim that superiors are overlooking their reports about conditions on the ground. If the U.S. and its Iraqi allies are making progress in eroding the appeal of the resistance, the men in Ramadi don't see it. Says an American officer: "This s___ ain't going anywhere."

From the instant Kilo Company set foot in Ramadi, the Marines knew they were in the middle of an insurgent hotbed. Lance Corporal Jose (Syco) Tasayco was on the unit's earliest patrol outside the wire in March. "The first day was an eye opener. We got contact, that first patrol. It was like, wow, we couldn't believe it, but we got outta there good. Nobody got hit," he says. The Marines are based in the battle-scarred Government Center in the middle of Ramadi, a magnet for al-Qaeda attacks--one of the few ways the Marines can find their enemy. The precarious outpost also protects the nascent local government, which operates out of its confines.

Sitting sentry in the center of town, the Marines are a ripe target for insurgent assaults. On April 24, mortars begin crashing down on the compound, and the shuddering impacts force the grunts to take cover in their rooftop bunkers. From an alley in the northeast, an insurgent fires a rocket-propelled grenade that slams a wall along the narrow mouth of a sandbagged gun pit. Shards of hot metal penetrate the opening, hitting Corporal Jonathan Wilson. Blood pours down his neck. "Corpsman up, corpsman up," he cries--asking for a medic to head to the roof. He runs downstairs and collapses into the arms of a sergeant.

Meanwhile, shrapnel has shredded the left thumb of Lance Corporal Adam Sardinas. But he keeps his finger on the trigger of a grenade launcher, and it's not until another Marine arrives to relieve him that he finally turns for the slit doorway. "Let me get outta here," he says. "I'm hit pretty bad." But the battle goes on: below the Marines' outpost, al-Qaeda fighters toting AK-47s dart in and out of view. As blood from Sardinas and Wilson pools at his feet, Sergeant William Morrow grips the grenade launcher. A fellow Marine spots an insurgent in the open. "Waste his ass," Tasayco urges as they open fire on the enemy below.

Despite heavy losses among the insurgents--112 were killed in one week in April--they have proved resistant to the U.S.'s onslaughts. Intelligence officials increasingly refer to them as a "legitimate local resistance," but it's al-Qaeda that drives them. Long ago, al-Zarqawi's network settled in Ramadi and, in essence, hijacked the homegrown fight. Although Iraqi groups have bucked al-Zarqawi's authority periodically--most notably in last year's referendum and December election, when they opted to vote, forcing him to stand idly by--al-Qaeda maintains its grip.

U.S. efforts to woo Iraqi groups were beginning to pay dividends, as the city's tribal and insurgent leaders gave their approval for young Sunnis to join the new police force. Recruitment mostly ran at about 40 a month, though in January, 1,000 showed up to join. But al-Qaeda responded by sending a chest-vest suicide bomber into the queue of applicants, killing about 40 Iraqis, wounding 80, and killing two Americans. When the recruits returned days later, al-Zarqawi followed up with a wave of seven assassinations of tribal sheiks. "That hurt us a lot," says Gronski.

Given the ability of al-Zarqawi's men to melt into the city, Kilo Company has few options but to search for the insurgents on block-by-block foot patrols through the worst areas. It's perilous work. On one morning this month, Tasayco and Corporal Nathan Buck take their squad out to commandeer a small shopping complex, which will give cover for the rest of the platoon to push east. On the roof, Buck, his helmet emblazoned with the words DEATH DEALERS in thick letters, warns his Marines to stay alert. When Tasayco sees movement in a nearby window, Buck rises to check it out. An insurgent sniper fires at his head, cracking a round into the lip of the cement wall in front of him. "I should be dead right now," Buck says to Tasayco with a laugh.

It's not long before another round flies over their heads, this time from a little farther to the east. The sniper is moving, hunting them. Minutes pass with no more firing. But Tasayco is uneasy. The order comes over the radio to move back to base. "Be careful, we're gonna get hit," a Marine says as the men drop to the pavement. It's only 150 yards back to the Government Center, but every inch is hard won. Lance Corporal Phillip Tussey pauses on the edge of a small alley. With another Marine covering him, he makes a dash to cross the five yards of open ground. He doesn't get more than a couple of steps when a shot rings out. He's cut down mid-stride, hit in the thigh. The men around him open fire. Within seconds, insurgents start shooting from the opposite direction. A Marine tries to drag Tussey by a leg toward a humvee but gets stranded out in the open. Tasayco bolts forward and grabs the wounded man by the arm. Someone else joins him. Still firing, they shove him into the vehicle. Tasayco takes cover and looks for the shooter. "Where the hell is this guy at?" he hollers. No one answers. "C'mon, everybody, let's go. Pick it up. Get the f___ out of here, man," Tasayco shouts. All his men can do is run.

So why does Ramadi remain beyond the U.S.'s control? Part of the problem, many officers say, is that the troops' authority to act is constrained by politics. Soldiers cannot lock up suspected insurgents without first getting an arrest warrant and a sworn statement from two witnesses. And those who are convicted often receive jail sentences that are shorter than a grunt's tour of Iraq. "We keep seeing guys we arrested coming back out, and things get worse again," says an intelligence officer.

The bigger problem, though, is one that few in the military command want to hear: there aren't enough troops to do the job. "There's a realization, as every military commander knows, that you cannot be strong everywhere," says Gronski of Ramadi. "In the outlying areas, we think in terms of an economy of force where we are willing to accept risk by not placing as many troops." But while Gronski says his fighting strength is "appropriate," other commanders bristle at the limitations. "I can't believe it each time the Secretary of Defense talks about reducing force," says a senior U.S. officer. War planners in Iraq say just getting a handle on Ramadi demands three times as many soldiers as are there now. Several U.S. commanders say they won't ask superiors for more troops or plan large-scale operations because doing so would expose problems in the U.S.'s strategy that no one wants to acknowledge. "It's what I call the Big Lie," a high-ranking U.S. commander told TIME.

To be fair, gains are being made in Ramadi with the Iraqi army, the police and the young provincial government. A brigade intelligence officer says that "we are not getting excited because this is a long process--though we are winning. The tide is turning." But for those in the midst of the battle, that can sometimes be hard to see. "No matter what they say about the rest of the country, it ain't like this place," says a battalion officer in the thick of the fight. "It's the worst place in the world."