I was greeted by friendly Iraqis in the streets of Baghdad every day, but the atmosphere in Ramadi was different. I am not exaggerating in the least when I describe their attitude toward Americans as euphoric.
Grown Iraqi men hugged American Soldiers and Marines.
Young men wanted me to take their pictures with their arms around American Soldiers and Marines. The Americans seemed slightly bored with the idea, but the Iraqis were enthusiastic.
Children hugged State Department civilian reconstruction team leader Donna Carter.
Ramadi has changed so drastically from the terrorist-infested pit that it was as recently as April 2007 that I could hardly believe what I saw was real. The sheer joy on the faces of these Iraqis was unmistakable. They weren’t sullen in the least, and it was pretty obvious that they were not just pretending to be friendly or going through the hospitality motions.
“It was nothing we did,” said Marine Lieutenant Colonel Drew Crane who was visiting for the day from Fallujah. “The people here just couldn’t take it anymore.”
What he said next surprised me even more than what I was seeing.
“You know what I like most about this place?” he said.
“What’s that?” I said.
“We don’t need to wear body armor or helmets,” he said.
I was poleaxed. Without even realizing it, I had taken off my body armor and helmet. I took my gear off as casually as I do when I take it off after returning to the safety of the base after patrolling. We were not in the safety of the base and the wire. We were safe because we were in Ramadi.
[. . . .]
The Iraqis of Anbar Province turned against Al Qaeda and sided with the Americans in large part because Al Qaeda proved to be far more vicious than advertised. But it’s also because sustained contact with the American military – even in an explosively violent combat zone –convinced these Iraqis that Americans are very different people from what they had been led to believe. They finally figured out that the Americans truly want to help and are not there to oppress them or steal from them. And the Americans slowly learned how Iraqi culture works and how to blend in rather than barge in.
“We hand out care packages from the U.S. to Iraqis now that the area has been cleared of terrorists,” one Marine told me. “When we tell them that some of these packages aren’t from the military or the government, that they were donated by average American citizens in places like Kansas, people choke up and sometimes even cry. They just can’t comprehend it. It is so different from the lies they were told about us and how we’re supposed to be evil.”
[. . . .]
I photographed a freshly painted cell phone store that looked new.
“That’s when you know life is coming back to normal,” Sergeant Hicks said, “when they open a cell phone shop.”
“It’s amazing for us to see people out on that street buying and selling things,” Captain Phil Messer said to me later. “That never happened for the first months we were out here. Literally zero businesses were open. People were scared shitless of Al Qaeda. If you pissed them off they would show up at your house in the middle of the night, rape your women in front of you, kill your sons, and say you will not help the Americans. Huge numbers of these people just fled to Syria.”
Reminds me of Mancur Olson's Power and Prosperity.