As ISIS seeks revenge in Ramadi, a US veteran fears for his Sunni allies there

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Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills in for Marco Werman, and this The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Most American troops have been out of Iraq for years now, and for many of us, that’s meant we pay as little attention to what’s happening there now. But it’s different for those who served there. Their memories of Iraq are tied to the places they fought to conquer and protect. So, when there’s news that ISIS has taken over a place like Ramadi, it can be difficult for veterans like Thom Daly to hear. As a marine, Daly helped US forces take that key city in Iraq’s Anbar province. He wrote a book about his experience as a lieutenant there. It’s called: “Rage Company: A Marine’s Baptism By Fire.” Daly still remembers arriving in Ramadi in November 2006 as part of the surge to push al-Qaeda from Anbar province.


Thomas Daly: My memory of downtown was more Stalingrad-esque; it was destroyed while I was there, and the images that came out of the city over the years after were completely different. They rebuilt many portions of the city. We had torn down a series of structures that overlooked into the government compound in the center of the city because the insurgents were using them to fire at the marines at that position. And the Iraqis had rebuilt a garden with a statue that symbolized peace for the city. They were incredibly grateful for us for helping them remove al-Qaeda from the city. It was a brutal, brutal fight in downtown, where people’s kids were being kidnapped and beheaded--sheer brutality. So,  the people really rejected that extremism.


Hills: What you described so powerfully in your book is not marines riding in to the rescue but the careful and often dangerous effort that it took to build an alliance with the local citizens. Why was that so difficult in Ramadi?


Daly: It had a lot of support for the Baathist Party. These were the guys that were sort of in charge. The same people that I probably envisioned that I needed to kill when I first went to Iraq. And when you look at the dichotomy of al-Qaeda and these Sunni nationalists trying to fight America together, it just wasn’t a recipe that was going to work. Al-Qaeda tried to force themselves upon the population and, in time, it became something that were able to exploit. During my time there, I was working with these Sunni nationalists who recognized that America had a lot more to offer Iraq than what al-Qaeda did.


Hills: So, who were these Ramadi residents that your company worked with?


Daly: Well, we called them “the scouts” when we first started working with them. They were really a mix of former military Baathist, infantry, pilots; some of them were lawyers, you name it. In time, as the populace saw us become more effective, the group really exploded into literally everyone. It became a popular movement and something much more than just this core group we originally started with.


Hills: Why were these Sunnis so eager to deal with the Americans?


Daly: We almost messed this up. When we first started working with these guys, they came to us, and they had--literally, they just showed up and said, “We want to work with the Americans who are in our area.” And there was no trust--let’s start with that. We tried to take the weapons away from these Sunnis. We demanded that they go out with us unarmed. They refused. We told them that there were no trucks to take them home, so they would have to stay with us the night anyways, they might as well go with us. And so, we went through this whole kind of back and forth where we eventually gave them the weapons and we let them come out with us and we did this first mission together, and the first time we did this, we had a total of 25 guys, and the second time we did it, 5 of them came back. So, it was not something that looked promising at the time, but the moment the locals saw that we were effective, we were kicking down the right doors, grabbing the right people, putting them away, which then allowed the citizens to have confidence in giving the Americans information, which was something they had not had.


Hills: Now, one of those citizens was a Ramadi resident called Abu Tiba. Tell us about him.


Daly: Yeah, Abu Tiba was a lawyer, and I did quite a bit of work with him as kind of the liaison to these guys that we were referring to as “the scouts.” In time, he’s risen through the ranks, he’s now a chief of police in eastern Ramadi. And he’s on the frontline with ISIS today. I mean, this is a guy who had envisioned his dream in life was to see Niagara Falls in New York. He lives in a desert; the one thing he wanted to see before he died was water in abundance. So, it was a very personable guy. I’ve maintained contact with him through the years.


Hills: Have you been in touch with him in the last few days?


Daly: No, not for the last two weeks. The last email I got was from Abu Tiba and it was two weeks ago, and he said that “we have achieved nothing.”


Hills: So, do you think that those people feel sort of abandoned?


Daly: Absolutely. And really, the Sunnis, will they forgive? That’s the ultimate question. The Sunni tribes in Ramadi are the fiercest anti-ISIS tribes there are. That’s why this is such a symbolic victory for ISIS. If we allow them to control that city, they really have no one opposing them in Anbar province. The people might not like what’s happening to them, but they’re killing off the opposition--literally, killing off the opposition. So, who is that the government in Baghdad is going to partner with?


Hills: Author Thomas Daly wrote a book about his experience as a lieutenant in Iraq’s Anbar province. It’s called “Rage Company: A Marine’s Baptism By Fire.” Thanks so much, Thom.


Daly: Alright, Carol. Thank you.