RAMADI, Iraq -- After three years of fighting that has killed 143 American troops in Anbar province, the U.S. military has been unable to quash a vicious insurgency that shows no sign of abating.
Senior U.S. commanders, grappling with Islamist fighters through the Euphrates River towns and the dusty, wind- swept expanse of this province west of Baghdad, describe the insurgents of al-Qaida in Iraq as well-financed, well-led and elusive.
In interviews at heavily bunkered American outposts in Ramadi, Fallujah, Haditha Dam and elsewhere, the officers described the fight as a frustrating uphill battle that will require a steady commitment over many years to win.
President Bush's struggle to find a strategy to halt Iraq's slide toward chaos and civil war is focused on the growing sectarian strife in Baghdad, where White House and Pentagon strategists say the war must be won.
But no matter the fate of Baghdad, the separate insurgency in Anbar will fester and grow as a dangerous al-Qaida sanctuary unless it is decisively defeated, U.S. commanders said.
Gen. James T. Conway, making his first tour of the region since he was named commandant of the Marine Corps in November, called the steadily rising violence against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, despite the presence of 20,000 Marines, "disheartening."
He said it is likely that the deployment of 2,000 Marines in the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, sent here as reinforcements in November, would be extended by 60 to 90 days in March because they are filling critical combat missions around Rutbah, a stronghold of the main insurgent group, al-Qaida in Iraq.
But Conway said in an interview that he believes the bombings, assassinations and sniper attacks are "at a high-water mark."
U.S. forces are using such creative tactics as building earthen dikes or berms around some urban areas to control access by insurgents. They are outfighting the insurgents in firefights. They are helping to train and advise new Iraqi army and police units - all factors that Conway said convinced him the situation was better than he had expected.
The day after Marines finished building the berm around several large towns near Haditha this fall, insurgent attacks dropped by half.
"I was really encouraged," said Conway, who led 60,000 troops of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in two combat tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
Other officers stressed that while there is progress, it will be slow.
"The issue isn't whether we can hang on," said Brig. Gen. Robert G. Neller, operations chief for Multinational Force-West, the military command for Anbar province. "The issue is whether the American people are willing to accept a long-term commitment in Iraq."
In direct firefights with insurgents, the Marines and soldiers here always prevailed. But there's no straight line from winning battles to winning the war.
"If killing people would win this, we'd have won a long time ago," said Col. William Crowe, commander of Regimental Combat Team 7, the main combat force in Anbar, where about 1,400 insurgents have been killed since June.
Working the back alleys and neighborhoods where there is no constant U.S. presence, the Sunni insurgents are waging a campaign of murder and intimidation to demonstrate that neither the Iraqi government nor U.S. forces can protect people.
"Kill one, scare one thousand," said an intelligence officer. "Anyone cooperating with us becomes a target for AQI assassination."
In Haditha, several relatives of the police chief were killed and their heads impaled on stakes for public display. A woman detonated a vest bomb at the entrance to a local university. The provincial council has fled from the capital, Ramadi, to the relative safety of Baghdad.
In general terms, violence in Anbar has risen steadily over the past year, in a pattern that shows up on intelligence charts as a ramp rising "in a northeasterly direction," as Conway described it. In Ramadi, roadside bomb attacks have jumped from four a day in October to six per day in November, despite a concerted Marine crackdown.
This year, thanks to growing expertise in smuggling, extortion, bank holdups and black marketing, the insurgency became self-supporting, independent of any need for outside financing. Contractors working for U.S. forces often are told to pay kickbacks or be killed. By one estimate, the insurgents brought in $80 million this year.
Although there is a general perception among Sunnis here that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad doesn't give Anbar its full share, some money does come in from Baghdad. Much of it is stolen or diverted to the insurgents.
"The more we learn, the more we see how much money from the government in Baghdad gets siphoned off" to al-Qaida in Iraq, said Lt. Col. Jim Donnallen, a battalion commander.
As it is, Iraqi army divisions are undermanned, one barely at one-third strength. Despite some good commanders, much of that force is not capable of sustained operations even with embedded U.S. trainers and advisers and supply, medical, communications and air support from Marines.
That means that while U.S. troops can cordon off neighborhoods and clear them of insurgents, there aren't enough Iraqi soldiers to maintain a security presence there, and the insurgents seep back in.
"The Iraqi army isn't working," said one Marine officer.
Many officers blame the government in Baghdad for being unwilling or unable to support police and army units in Anbar.
"The police would not get paid were it not for coalition [U.S.] forces," said Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, who commands all U.S. forces in western Iraq. "The Iraqi army would get no sustainment [supplies] without coalition forces. They were able to make this work under Saddam" Hussein.
Baghdad's neglect of the army units in Anbar "is criminally inept," said Army Col. Sean MacFarland. "Hell, I wouldn't work for the Iraqi army."
Often paired with Iraqi units, U.S. forces work the streets like detectives, conducting sweeps and dragnets and picking up significant numbers of insurgents and suspected sympathizers to be detained. More than a half-dozen of the top insurgent leaders are in jail.
But legal proof of participation in the insurgency is difficult to assemble, and many insurgents are released by Iraqi judges for lack of evidence. In one recent case, a notorious insurgent leader rejoined the fight against U.S. forces the same day he was released, U.S. officers said.
Officers said the release of detainees understandably makes people less willing to turn in local bad guys. "When they get released, they go hunting for whoever ratted them out," said another officer.
Tips from the local population would help, but in Ramadi there is no phone service.
"If we could get the wireless turned back on, our tip line would go into operation and we could clean this city out," said MacFarland, who commands an armored brigade here.
Even without phones, insurgent intimidation makes people wary of being seen cooperating with U.S. forces. Some insist on being arrested to come into a U.S. battalion headquarters to do business, just to maintain their cover.
"They've been betrayed twice," said Crowe. In 2004 Marines were twice pulled out of Ramadi and other Anbar towns to lay siege to Fallujah; both times, insurgents swiftly moved into the vacuum and violence soared. In Ramadi, the police who had been working with Marines "were butchered right on our front steps," said Crowe.
"There is not a lot of trust here for us," he said.
There are some bright spots in recruiting and training Iraqi police. In Ramadi, for example, last summer police were able to attract only 25 or 30 new recruits per month. But after U.S. troops and Iraqi police mounted successful offensives against the insurgents, recruiting shot up to 400 a month in November and 800 in December.
In the bermed area around Haditha, there were no Iraq police on duty six months ago; now there are 300.
In the far west town of Qaim, insurgents have been chased away and as many as 9,000 people show up on market days. Roadside bomb attacks were once common; in the past three months there have been two.
But there are maddening problems: Baghdad demands that all police applicants be literate, a requirement that eliminates half of all potential recruits. "The enemy doesn't give a literacy test," groused one officer. "If you can shoot an AK-47 or pop an IED [homemade bomb], you're in."
The simple answer to all this doesn't exist. "We've analyzed this and analyzed it and you just rub your head sometimes trying to find the one thing that will solve it," said Neller.
If there is one thing, some Marines say, it is time. But it's unclear how much they have.
Asked if he is worried about running out of time in Anbar, Conway replied: "Yeah, I am.
"There are two timelines: what it will take to get the job done, and what a democratic society will allow us to do the job. Our troops feel that if given a little more time, this thing will sort itself out and we'll walk out with our heads held high."