DISPATCHES FROM IRAQ
Voting was dangerous choice in Ramadi
By Tad Tsuneyoshi
In the days after the elections here in Iraq, I received many e-mails commending our role in ensuring that the Iraqi people were allowed to vote freely for the government that would structure the future of Iraq through a constitution.
I was told of news reports of a successful, popular election by the people of Iraq. Being in Ramadi, I would have never known of successful voter turnouts in other areas of Iraq. I state it as "being in Ramadi" since this was one of the areas that is plagued by insurgent violence and people not fully aware of their new-earned freedom to live and choose. Or rather, the results could be construed to be that of an exercise of choice not to vote a choice weighted down by danger and threats.
The days and weeks leading up to election day were focused on spreading information to counter propaganda that the election would not come to Ramadi. Many in Ramadi had talked about numerous messages that were broadcast on different mediums stating that elections would not come. In addition, the insurgency had spread its propaganda, threatening negative consequences. Our patrols put the men on the line every mission, and many times with numerous counts of small-arms contact. We conducted "walk and talk" with the people of Ramadi to express to them the importance of choice and voting and how it all ties in with living the Iraqi way of life. Numerous missions were conducted to pass out candy and soccer balls to ease the tension and bring in the family for a moment to talk with them all.
These missions merely caused frustration among my soldiers who got tired of talking and passing out candy versus going out and targeting the enemy. This frustration grew as we sustained many hardships leading up to the election operations with two deaths. Overall, the battalion sustained five deaths and 14 wounded in the weeks and days leading up to the elections. The battalion leadership faced the need to sell the "purpose" not only to the Iraqi people but also to our soldiers. Our soldiers needed to know that the elections would be a landmark in the growth of democracy for the Iraqi people. Even if these ideas were not internalized by the soldiers, they did their job as well as they do everything to ensure that their brother next to them would come home.
Many speculated that an all-out battle would erupt in Ramadi, with foreign fighters pouring in to fight. There was a significant rise in small arms and rocket-propelled grenade contact. There also was evidence of coordinated attacks. The most "coordinated attack" that occurred in the city before the elections involved small arms and rocket grenades and was followed by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), machine gunfire and rifle fire. This attack had occurred as one platoon was making contact with the people during a "walk and talk" mission in a hostile area of the city. It was also one of the first missions in which Iraqi commandos walked the streets, side by side with American soldiers in Ramadi. While they were conducting this mission, two platoons were positioned to secure the flanks.
As the "walk and talk" platoon progressed through the streets, contact erupted on the southern flank with small arms, rocket grenades and an explosive device. Within a couple of minutes, a VBIED disguised as a taxi was stopped; most likely en route to the northern flank position. The VBIED was initiated on the U.S. soldiers in a blocking position south of the northern flank position, killing one instantly and severely injuring three. Later, one of the three injured soldiers died of his wounds.
Almost simultaneously, machine-gun and rifle fire erupted on the northern flank. This contact resulted in one U.S. soldier being killed. The platoon quickly returned fire and allowed for a pinned-down element to maneuver to safety. Later, sources confirmed three enemy fighters were killed and six were wounded from this engagement. The fire that pounded the known enemy position was later described by the enemy as "airplanes dropping bombs." That day we lost good friends and good soldiers. At the same time, it was an awesome display of our capabilities as a conventional force combating an unconventional force.
In the days leading up to election day, there was a sustained amount of small-arms contact and a substantial increase in the use of bombs. The IED techniques used were not characteristic of Ramadi, suggesting that outside fighters were brought in.
The polling sites were established a couple days in advance of election day due to the level of security needed. The movement of personnel and supplies and the necessary security required multiple levels of coordination. In addition, the Iraqi security forces, the "commandos," would be employed with our forces side by side.
Before the first vote was cast, the battalion lost one killed in action and two wounded in action in a bomb attack. Election day came with "regular contact," unlike the "Armageddon" that many had predicted. However, the violence lessened the motivation of potential voters to go to the polling sites. In addition, one individual had told "Jackie Chan" (me) that the violence would not be until after the elections and would be directed toward those who showed up to vote. With the choice to vote comes the choice not to vote. And if faced with danger to myself and my family, I would be swayed not to vote. Countless operations and hours spent explaining the concept of voting and choice to the people amounted to approximately 500 votes Ramadi-wide, less than 1 percent of the total 200,000 voting population of the city.
What is significant is that there were Iraqis standing side by side with coalition forces ensuring the security for those 500 people who decided to brave the enemies. This in itself is monumental in a city that sways its favor toward the "stronger voice," which is often that of violence.
The future is uncertain for this turbulent city. Things have slowed down, but for those who braved the months and moments of violence, this is an environment best described as a jack-in-the-box. Now the emphasis is on reassuring the people of Ramadi that the process of choice takes time to produce tangible results.
We continue to push out every day. Every mission, we are unsure if this will be the turn that "Jack" pops out.
We continue to readjust our focus in the city, especially with our new ally in Iraq the Iraqi commandos. Our purpose renewed with our friends outside the wire: Enmar and "Uncle Pitti's family," a little 7-year-old boy who we met during the elections and knows the 3rd Platoon by name; the "Mexican Lover" who has stated that the "Mexican" and "Jackie Chan" are his adopted sons; and the "Js" who know our platoon sergeant by his hard and soft personality. Our purpose is strengthened by the value of the brotherhood of the soldiers that we serve next to and those who watch over us now Staff Sgt. Thomas Vitagliano (C Company), Spc. Michael Smith (3rd Platoon), Pfc. Jesus Fonseca (3rd Platoon), Pfc. George Geer (3rd Platoon), and Pfc. Jason Sparks (3rd Platoon).