RAMADI, Iraq — The pamphlet handed out by U.S. Marines and soldiers to residents here ahead of the national election draws on the ruinous experience of another volatile city in the Sunni Triangle.

"Thanks to the Good People of Ramadi," the pamphlet reads, "Ramadi Is Not Sharing Fallujah's Fate."

A picture of a masked insurgent holding two rocket-propelled grenade launchers drives home the point about Fallujah, which was the virtual capital of the Iraqi insurgency until U.S.-led forces invaded it in the fall.

Now, U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the same "good people" of Ramadi will participate in the Jan. 30 election and provide the intelligence needed to thwart insurgents' attempts to disrupt the balloting.

If the government and its American allies are going to pull off the election where Sunni Muslims are dominant, it will have to go well here in the provincial capital, an aging, deteriorating industrial center with 400,000 residents on the banks of the Euphrates River.

With Fallujah in virtual lockdown after the November offensive, Ramadi looms as the more significant test of whether U.S. and Iraqi forces can provide security and Sunni voters ignore calls by some clerics to boycott the election.

Despite the efforts of officials in Washington, D.C., to play down the election, saying it is only the first step in a long march to Iraqi self-government, U.S. officials here are candid in their assessment of Ramadi's importance.

"From a symbolic and a political standpoint, conducting a successful election in Ramadi, the provincial capital, is critical," said Brig. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division.

Late last week, U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte, Army Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, and Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, came to the division headquarters to meet with Dunford, division commander Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski and other Marine brass.

The officials discussed security plans for the days leading up to and including the election in Ramadi and other parts of Al Anbar province, which stretches about 300 miles from the outskirts of Baghdad, the capital, to the Jordanian border.

Although overshadowed in media accounts by the Fallujah offensives in April and November, this city has seen intense guerrilla warfare at times since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Until November, the Marine battalion that had suffered the most casualties in Iraq was the 2nd Battalion, 4th Regiment, which was stationed in Ramadi for seven months last year.

"I think Ramadi was even more dangerous than Fallujah," said Marine Maj. Dan Whittman, whose patrol boat on the Euphrates was set ablaze by a rocket attack.

"In Fallujah, before November, they started shooting at you as soon as you entered the city limits," Whittman said. "In Ramadi, they let you come in and then pick you apart, and they have good snipers."

In October, the United States doubled the number of troops assigned to Ramadi, and security improved for a time. Now, almost daily attacks have become the norm again.

In recent weeks, several Iraqi police stations have been destroyed by explosions. Late last week, rocket attacks were reported in residential areas as well as near U.S. compounds. Marines exchanged gunfire with suspected insurgents, but no U.S. casualties were reported in any of the incidents.

On Friday, snipers rained fire on Ramadi's government center, where U.S. and Iraqi officials were meeting to discuss the election and other city workers were trying to help residents with the day-to-day problems of employment and healthcare.

In anticipation of the election, U.S. troops have raided numerous locations around Ramadi. In one night, 82 suspected insurgents were captured. The military said a load of anti-American literature and several caches of weaponry, including grenades, rockets and AK-47s, were seized.

Comment on this story

Although they are among the few large cities in Al Anbar and are only 40 miles apart, Ramadi and Fallujah historically have gone their separate ways. Ramadi is more tribal, with a tighter social structure. Fallujah was more hospitable to outsiders and served as a way station for travelers and merchants from Syria and Jordan.

Lance Cpl. Rajai Hakki, who speaks Arabic and has served in Baghdad and Fallujah as well as here, finds Ramadi residents more perplexing than other Iraqis.

"As absurd as it sounds, they seem comfortable with our presence, even though there are attacks every day," Hakki said. "It's become the status quo.

"Everybody knows who the mujahedin are, but nobody wants to help us," he said. "There's just too much fear."