Lance Cpl. Dustin Gross lay on a Ramadi street beside his wrecked Humvee, conscious but too badly injured to get up. The crew's gunner, momentarily knocked cold, slumped in the turret above him. Huge pieces of shrapnel and broken bits of pavement rained through a haze of dust and debris. A massive blast from an improvised explosive device had just ripped into the Humvee's engine block, tossing the five-ton vehicle into the air and flinging the driver-side door, torn from its hinges, across the street. The rest of the patrol quickly checked themselves for injuries, each shouting "I'm OK!" as they raced to help Gross. They dragged him to the Humvee's sheltered side, and I followed. (A NEWSWEEK photographer and I were embedded with the unit.) "Cover that corner!" ordered Staff Sgt. Chris Winship, scanning the street for any hint of an ambush. He had a Marine down, a disabled vehicle and no time for bad guesses.
Seconds later, machine-gun fire erupted. Winship's men had spotted a group of insurgents peering out from behind a wall. One had an RPG, but as he crouched low to fire it, a Marine was quicker using his own grenade launcher, killing the insurgent instantly. With that, muzzle flashes from enemy AK-47s spouted from darkened windows and doorways up and down the street. Before the Marines could take cover, gunfire began from the south and west as well. The Marines were being surrounded. "Get into that house!" Winship yelled above the din. His men call him The Machine. He pointed to a walled compound next to where the IED had detonated. "Clear that house now! Get up on the roof! We need eyes on!"
Iraq these days doesn't get any worse than Ramadi, capital of restive Anbar province. Winship's crew and the several thousand other U.S. forces there are pitted against a city full of adversaries, who run the gamut from Qaeda veterans and unreconstructed Baathists to street-corner mercenaries, happy to plant an IED for the price of an air conditioner or a generator to run it. The violence continues to frustrate the U.S. military's hopes for a quick withdrawal from the city, or even a pullback to bases outside town, as Sunni politicians have urged for months.
Marines in Ramadi are searching for ways to break what one officer calls "a standoff, like gunslingers in the Wild West." In direct combat they still respond to their enemies as Marines always have, with overwhelming force. But officers in some parts of the city are getting hopeful results with a "softer" approach to counterinsurgency, emphasizing community relations over armed confrontation. The new methods aren't always popular with traditional-minded Marines who scorn them as "unwarriorlike." Everyone agrees, though, with the assessment of the U.S. commander in Ramadi, Col. Sean MacFarland: what happens in this city could ultimately mean disaster or success in the struggle against Sunni insurgents throughout Iraq. It is, he adds, at a "tipping point."
Attacks like the July 22 ambush are routine for Sergeant Winship and the men of Weapons Company 3 Bravo, who patrol the city for roadside bombs. On any given day, the number of IEDs in Ramadi's streets is between 50 and 100, by the military's estimate--more than the troops can hope to disarm. Riding at the head of a four-Humvee convoy, Sergeant Winship was his driver's second pair of eyes. "Watch those wires," he warned Gross. "Stay to the right." The convoy, which was carrying the embedded NEWSWEEK team, turned south onto 20th Street, creeping along a wide avenue of dun-colored houses, shuttered storefronts and withered date palms. Earlier that af-ternoon the Marines had watched men strolling and children playing in the street. Now everyone had disappeared. A bad sign: locals often know when an attack is coming. The Marines were braced for the worst.
The Marines had barely picked themselves up from the blast when the shooting started. It's what the military calls a "complex attack," first bombs, then guns. A dozen or more insurgents hammered the Marines from three sides. Lance Cpl. Amarinder Grewal, 24, fired and ran to a fresh position. "I smoked him!" he yelled. Several of Winship's men entered the nearby home of a terrified Iraqi couple. The woman clutched a screaming infant to her chest and prayed aloud. "Inshallah! Inshallah!" she cried, over and over: As God wills. Four Marines scrambled onto the roof to cover the others who remained under fire in the street. "These a--holes really want to play today," said Pfc. Mark Pettit, popping up from behind a roof parapet to fire his M-16.
More bad news crackled over the radio: battalion had sent a tow truck to remove the mangled Humvee, but it had hit two IEDs itself. An F-18 Hornet screamed overhead, dropping flares, preparing for air support if the patrol's situation got any worse. It didn't come to that. The Marines shot their way out of the ambush after half an hour, and towed their own vehicle home. They had killed five insurgents at a cost of only one wounded Marine, thanks to the Humvees' heavy armor.
When MacFarland's First Brigade Combat Team came to town last March, the resistance was more intense--and in some ways easier to fight. Groups of 30 or 40 insurgents mounted offensives against Marine bases and patrols, and fell in comparable numbers. Since then the big attacks have decreased, and the insurgents seem to be concentrating on the long haul. Senior U.S. military officers say Al Qaeda has taken control of Ramadi's gas stations, imposing its own sales tax throughout the city, and tripling prices at the pump. The terrorist group uses its cash to hire unemployed young Iraqis to plant bombs and stage ambushes. "They've given themselves sustainability," says one senior Marine intelligence officer, requesting anonymity because of his assignment's sensitivity. "It's just a matter of time before they get control of Ramadi."
Against that prospect, the Marines are pursuing an aggressive new strategy. Colonel MacFarland enlists the help of local sheiks, promising them development assistance in exchange for police trainees from their tribes. "One of the things I want to do is get to the point where I'm not killing so many people a day," McFarland told NEWSWEEK. "I want to give them jobs." It's not easy. The insurgents kill every tribal cop they can, dumping their corpses in the street as a warning to anyone else who would cooperate with the Americans, but new recruits keep coming.
Along Ramadi's western edge, a different approach may be working. There Lima Company's captain, Max Barela, stopped kicking down doors months ago. Instead, he knocks and asks politely to come in. He stays for hours, sometimes into the middle of the night, just "chitchatting," he says. He recently conducted a census of the 2,000 homes in his area. "I know every family in my area," he says. Barela differentiates between enemies like Al Qaeda and "nationalist insurgents" who see themselves as fighting for Iraqi independence. "We have a policy where unless we have information that's going to put them away for a long time, we leave them alone," Barela says. "You'd be shocked at the level of frankness you can have with a nationalist insurgent." In the past three months, vio-lent incidents have decreased more than 70 percent in Lima Company's area, MacFar-land confirms. Children play on the streets past curfew, and IED attacks have virtually ceased.
The rest of Ramadi lingers in a perpetual state of war. In the heart of the city, Marines from Kilo Company are besieged behind blast walls by fighters who lurk in a "dead zone" of ruined buildings just yards from their front gate at the city's heart. Only five Marines from the company's original Third Platoon remain; the other seven have all been killed or wounded. Most Marines in the city have survived more than one IED attack. More than two dozen Marines have been killed in Ramadi since April, and more than double that number again in the surrounding areas.
Marines in Ramadi prefer to patrol at night, when tech-nology gives them the advantage. Even then it's hazardous duty. NEWSWEEK accompanied Captain Barela and his men on a night foot patrol into the heart of the souk, or marketplace, in a neighborhood so riddled with insurgents that the Marines mostly avoid it. The night very nearly qualified as a success by local standards. Barela had a good chat with a lawyer living in a two-story house just off 17th Street, where terrorists run rampant. His men were resuming their patrol when a thunderous blast echoed across the city. Word came soon: another Marine patrol had been following Lima's path when Cpl. Julian Ramon, 22, stepped on a pressure-activated mine. He died later that night. After the explosion, Barela and his men changed course. They headed west, toward the safer part of town. The night had gone on long enough.