RAMADI, Iraq (AP) _ The U.S. military has struggled for nearly four years to secure Ramadi, a city west of Baghdad that had become a magnet for Sunni insurgents and a lawless haven for al-Qaida militants.
Now _ slowly and in halting steps _ something appears to have given way. At least by its own tortured standards, Ramadi seems to be calming.
``It's much safer that in was. But is it perfectly safe? No,'' said Army Col. John W. Charlton, the commander responsible for the city about 75 miles west of the capital. ``As long as al-Qaida is operating in Iraq, it's not going to be.''
Ramadi offers a snapshot of the Pentagon's latest strategies to quell violence across the nation.
Whole neighborhoods are being walled off to keep insurgents from reaching their targets. Military units are moving off the major bases and establishing smaller U.S.-Iraqi posts in the most violent areas downtown.
Most crucial of all, alliances are being struck with influential Sunni sheiks once arrayed against American-led forces. Local tribal leaders, in turn, have provided personnel for a new police force.
Anbar's Sunni leaders have had little direct contact with the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, yet they control prime territory. Anbar, stretching from Baghdad's western edges to the Syrian border, serves as a key supply route for anti-government militants who range from former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to al-Qaida fanatics. Ramadi, a Euphrates River city of about 400,000, is Anbar's capital.
While the U.S. military claims progress here, Ramadi remains a place where even the most commonplace acts are shadowed by fear and the possibility that any moment could be fatal. White flags are carried by shoppers and school children in desperate attempts to show neutrality.
``A lot of people are still scared in their hearts,'' said Mahmoud, an elderly man in white robes who only would give his first name. ``The jihadists were all around here. They were killing everybody. They could come back anytime.''
In large part to allay those fears, Charlton said 70 percent of American forces were off the big bases and living downtown.
``We used to go on patrols and get shot at, then go back to base, eat chow, and do it all again,'' said U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Michael Jusino, who also served in Ramadi two years ago. ``But we realized that doesn't work. You have to go into the city and stay there.''
A year ago, the only permanent U.S. outposts were on one main road through the city center. Today, troops show off maps dotted with dozens of new posts in former insurgent strongholds. They also show graphs indicating the turnaround in violence in recent weeks. Compared to 20 to 30 daily attacks a year ago, now there often are just a few bursts of small arms fire in a day.
But dangers remain. Suicide bombers still strike. On April 6, a truck loaded with TNT and chlorine gas hit a police checkpoint in the district of Tameem, killing 27 people.
Marine Brig. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, commander of U.S. ground forces in Anbar, said the insurgents who've fled Ramadi are still in Anbar and haven't lost their punch.
``They're going to places we aren't. They regroup, they re-equip themselves, and they plan more spectacular attacks,'' Gurganus said. ``But wherever they go, we're going to go with them.''
U.S. commanders say the only way to defeat the insurgency is with the support of the local people. In the past, many supported the guerrillas, or were too afraid to cooperate with coalition forces.
A breakthrough came last fall when local sheiks began turning on al-Qaida and other extremist insurgent groups.
For some, it was a reaction against the religious fanaticism and brutality of al-Qaida gangs who had begun overshadowing their own influence. For others, it was a reaction to the growing power of rival Shiite Muslims, who became a majority in government after Saddam's fall. Iraqi army units that patrol Sunni-dominated Ramadi are overwhelmingly Shiite.
With no police or security forces to protect them, local tribesmen depended on their own militias for security. At the behest of the sheiks, many of those militias, including former insurgents, have joined the new police force.
U.S. forces often have stood aside and watched, but not always.
Several months ago, Americans sent help to Ramadi's Abu Soda tribe after it tried to prevent insurgents from using their territory to fire mortars on a nearby American base, said U.S. Army Maj. Jared Norrell.
``We gave them food, fuel, money _ everything we could to try to restore their way of life because they stood up and denied insurgents safe haven,'' Norrell said.
U.S. officers claim similar scripts have played out across the province.
In Ramadi, coalition troops now are trying to peacefully secure the gains.
Outside one new downtown outpost set up several weeks ago, U.S. Marine Capt. Ian Brooks watched a truck siphon up spilled sewage.
``It's very basic,'' he said. ``These people aren't screaming for a Disneyland, Ramadi. What they are asking for is, 'get the sewage out of here, we need electricity, we want the schools to open like in any normal city.'''
In Mulaab, once of the city's most violent areas, U.S. forces sealed off streets with blast walls and concertina wire to keep insurgents out and then conducted a massive security sweep.
The other sides of the neighborhood are ringed by a canal next to a large American base and a road open only to military traffic.
Residents, banned from using motor vehicles, use donkey carts and bicycles. Many have welcomed the ``gated community,'' and people in other neighborhoods have asked for them, too.
``What we're finding is, once you separate the insurgents from the people and push them out, the residents come forward and tell us where the insurgents did business, where they keep their weapons, where they put IEDs,'' Norrell said.
One insurgent carrying a bomb on a bicycle was tackled by residents and handed over to police, something virtually unheard here before, Charlton said.
The Mulaab's walls came up recently, ahead of a massive security sweep. Today it is quiet, but insurgents are still trying to slip back in. Roadside bombs and weapons caches are found almost everyday, said Iraqi Col. Ali Hussein, who commands an Iraqi battalion that has operated in Mulaab for a year and half.
``Anybody who tells you it's 100 percent cleared of terrorists is lying,'' Hussein said. ``But things have changed.''
During a recent meeting at a new security station, the mustachioed colonel slammed his fist on the table. ``Help the civilians as much as you can. The doctors, the beggars. Give them what you have,'' he told his men. ``Don't leave them hungry, or they'll find another way to fight us.''