Prior to 2007, August in Ramadi, Iraq was just another month of Al Qaeda bullying, gunfights, and all the things one would expect from a war. However, August 2007 was profoundly different for the citizens of Ramadi than August 2006. Instead of fierce firefights for US Soldiers and Iraqi police there were birthday cakes and birthday celebrations; parades and dancing in the streets.
Aug. 14 is Marine Lance Corporal Steven Hayes' birthday. Dropped off at a Ramadi based Iraqi police station in May 2007, Hayes and 16 fellow Marines were to live with, train, and work alongside 330 Iraqi policemen until late October.
And on Aug. 14, rather than being bunkered down inside the police station as Al Qaeda mounted attacks from the streets, Hayes was receiving a birthday cake baked by the mother of Iraqi policeman, Mohamed Abd Sattar.
"Him and a few police officers came in that day with a cake and a hookah for me for my birthday," said Hayes. "It was a vanilla cake with no icing."
What about Al Qaeda? What about the terrorists and the insurgents? What about IEDS and suicide bombers? How is it that the Iraqis could find the time to bake a birthday cake when their country was in the midst of war?
After the assassination of a sheikh by Al Qaeda operatives, who hid the body for 3 days in order to prevent the family from burying it, Sheikh Sattar approached a U.S. commander at Camp Ramadi, asking for an alliance. Al Qaeda's attempt to intimidate the citizens of Ramadi by hiding the sheikh's body had the opposite effect as it empowered both the people and local tribes who once saw the U.S. as the problem.
It was this single event that would be the turning point for Ramadi and Al Anbar province, a region that was once considered lost. Now it is a place where Iraqis can walk freely down the light gray streets that are lined with sandy tan buildings.
"You have to credit the people of Ramadi and Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha for turning the city around," said Hayes, who spent 7 months in Ramadi. "They asked the U.S. Military for help and we supported them in their mission."
Essentially, it was the outreach from local tribes to local police and U.S. troops, which allowed for what is referred to as the "Al Anbar Awakening".
With the alliance formed, Iraqi police and tribes along with U.S. troops fought house to house until Al Qaeda was driven out of not only Ramadi, but all of Al Anbar province.
"When I first arrived the city was still new to being free," said Hayes, "We put in a lot of time and effort to clean up the city and get power to all of the houses. When I got there the people were receiving 0 hours of city power and by the time we left they were getting close to 18."
The region was under Iraqi police control for the first time since the beginning of the Iraq war. Hayes contends that it was only under police control for a "few months" prior to his arrival in Mar. 2007.
Nevertheless, upon arriving in Iraq Hayes and fellow Marines were unsure of what to expect.
"We had heard that the situation had calmed down a lot but we never expected that it would be as calm as it was," said Hayes. "The Iraqis took us in with open arms as soon as we got there…We were only the second group of Marines to be put at the police station there. The first group was there for a few months and fought day in day out with the Police to turn the city around. So they saw that we were there to help."
Hayes admits that he remained skeptical of the calm nature of Ramadi even though many of the Iraqis he worked with were confident that Ramadi was a safe place. "You have to always be on guard and know that at anytime something can happen, but there are times where you are confident with your surroundings."
During the first parade in decades—the last one being before the reign of Saddam—Hayes possessed the confidence to dance jovially through the streets as Iraqi police, soldiers, and citizens did the same. Organized like a regular parade, the mass of Iraqis exuberantly moved along the streets, stopping for 30-minutes to turn up the music in order to dance and celebrate publicly for the first time in many years. Hayes and another Marine took photos and video while participating in the festivities.
"It was awesome to see these people come out from everywhere in the province and be able to enjoy themselves and not have to worry about fighting," said Hayes. "It is hard to describe how happy the people were."
The progress made in Ramadi and throughout Al Anbar province, which makes up a third of Iraq, is primarily due to the actions of the Iraqi people. Hayes was fortunate enough to experience the enthusiasm and commitment of the Iraqis to turn their country around. And it was not the first time that Hayes worked with a group of determined people towards one unifying goal.
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Hayes and his brother, David—a New York City fireman—assisted in the relief efforts. At the time, Hayes was a member of the Volunteer First Aid squad in Spotswood, NJ while his brother was a fireman in Montclair. Hayes was stationed at Giant's Stadium and he and his brother worked to clear debris from Ground Zero, hoping to find survivors or anything that would shed light on the churlish situation.
So when Hayes arrived in Iraq, his major duties, which consisted of helping to restore the city by training, overseeing, and assisting Iraq policemen in various operations came easy. Nevertheless, the fact that he was helping Iraqis instead of Americans did not affect his dedication to the cause.
He observed the same zeal and determination in the Iraqis, but rather than merely trying to restore a city, the Iraqis wanted to restore their lives. Before the reign of Saddam, Al Anbar province was a choice vacation spot for many Iraqis. It was a thriving city where people lived happily. The "Al Anbar Awakening" has allowed the citizens of Al Anbar province the opportunity to regain the prosperity and freedom that existed nearly 30 years ago.
Hayes admits he wasn't exactly sold on the invasion of Iraq initially, but after being there and getting to know the people of Iraq and their decades long struggle he sees the good being done and is glad to be a part of it.
Hayes was part of the March 2007 troop surge and will be redeployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan around September 2008.