An Edgy Calm in Fallujah

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FALLUJAH, IRAQ — “You’re probably safer here than you are in New York City,” said Marine First Lieutenant Barry Edwards when I arrived in Fallujah. I raised my eyebrows at him skeptically. “How many people got shot at last night in New York City?” he said.
“Probably somebody,” I said.
“Yeah, probably somebody did,” he said. “Somewhere.”
Nobody was shot last night in Fallujah. No American has been shot anywhere in Fallujah since the 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment rotated into the city two months ago. There have been no rocket or mortar attacks since the summer. Not a single of the 3/5 Marines has even been wounded.
“The only shots we’ve fired since we got here are warning shots,” said Lieutenant J.C. Davis. Another officer didn’t agree. “We haven’t even fired warning shots,” he said. “It’s too dangerous.”
It’s dangerous because anti-American sentiment still exists in the city, even though it is mostly passive right now. It isn’t entirely passive, however. Someone has been taking pot shots at Americans. A few days ago somebody threw a hand grenade at Marines. Two weeks ago an insurgent was caught by Iraqi Police officers while planting an IED near the main station. He freaked out, accidentally connected the wires, and blew himself up. “That’s what he gets,” Private Gauniel said.
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Destruction in Fallujah as seen from inside a Humvee
Even so, almost all patrols in the city are routine and uneventful affairs.
“We’ve got it quiet all the way up to our boundary line,” said Lieutenant Edwards. “But it’s stalling as you get closer to Baghdad. I don’t know who is on the other side over there. But the tribe that lives in that area doesn’t stop at our imaginary boundary line. The tribe keeps going toward Baghdad. We don’t know why the insurgency is still active because we’re not operating there.”
You can’t get a picture of Iraq as a whole from embedded reporters. It just isn’t possible. When I’m with an Army or Marine unit I’m mostly aware of what’s right in front of me, somewhat aware of what goes on generally in their area, and no more informed about the rest of the country than anyone else.
In July of 2007 I reported that my corner of Baghdad — in Graya’at, near Adhamiya — was quiet. It was, and I meant that literally. I spent a week there outside the wire with the 82nd Airborne, and I saw no violence whatsoever. I heard a single (very loud) car bomb from three miles away, but there was no other indication that I was in a city at war.
Last week I spent a mere eight hours in the Green Zone waiting for a helicopter flight to Fallujah. I lolled on the grass just outside the Iraqi Parliament building, about one hundred feet from the Red Zone, and heard a series of gunshots on the other side of the wall, followed by police sirens. The Iraqi Police responded to the violence as they should — by driving toward it, not by hiding or running away from it. Sadly, that counts as progress in Baghdad. But the sounds of gun fire continued without let up for another hour and a half. I have no idea who was shooting at who. The Americans at the Green Zone outpost didn’t know either. The Peruvians guarding the gates shrugged when I asked if they knew what was happening. “Hay muchas problemas,” one said. “Es Baghdad.”
Baghdad is supposedly only half as violent as it was when I spent my quiet week inside the city, but it is still very dangerous. The trend lines are going in the right direction, but anything can still happen anywhere at any time. It remains a city at war.
Fallujah is different.
None of the Marines I’ve spoken to are nervous while walking the streets. “Complacency kills” is the new catchphrase in Fallujah, and it’s drummed into the heads of the Americans here every day. The Marines may not have yet won the war in this city, but it sure is starting to look like it. The insurgency in Fallujah is over.
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Fallujah is so close to Baghdad it is almost a suburb, though technically it belongs to Anbar Province. Even so, I have heard almost nothing about the Anbar Awakening here. I’ve always thought of Fallujah as a place unto itself. The locals and the Marines think of it that way, as well. Ramadi is the real city of Anbar. Fallujah is Fallujah.
Whatever else you might say about Fallujah, it’s an original. For decades it has been the infamous bad boy city in Iraq.
Author Bing West describes the place this way in No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah. “Ask Iraqis about Fallujah, and they roll their eyes: Fallujah is strange, sullen, wild-eyed, badass, and just plain mean. Fallujans don’t like strangers, which includes anyone not homebred. Wear lipstick or Western-style long hair, sip a beer or listen to an American CD, and you risk the whip or a beating.”
“Saddam rewarded Fallujah with money and recruited his secret police and fedayeen from here,” Lieutenant Edwards said. “Now it is powerless.” It was also the backbone of the insurgency before it slagged off. Ramadi was the capital of Al Qaeda’s so-called “Islamic State in Iraq. But Fallujah was, as the lieutenant put it, Al Qaeda’s first club house.
It isn’t nearly as dangerous anymore. I would be foolish to say it is safe. You would not want to come here on vacation even if the Iraqi Police would let you inside its walls — and they won’t if you don’t live here and have the proper ID.
Earlier this year the police set up checkpoints outside the city where they refuse entry to everyone without a Fallujah resident sticker on the windshield of their car. Even residents who have the permit can only drive on designated streets. Every neighborhood has been sectioned off from the others with concrete barriers and checkpoints.
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Fallujah is known as the City of Mosques. It is also a city of walls.
“Today we’re going to a place where we’ve seen some small arms fire,” Lieutenant Colonel Chris Dowling said before I joined him on a dismounted foot patrol in a neighborhood called Dubat. “Earlier in the week one of the patrols was attacked with a hand grenade and small arms fire,” he said. “And last night there was small arms fire again. A single shot. That makes it even more interesting. Why only a single shot?”
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Lieutenant Colonel Chris Dowling
“Was it a sniper round?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “This was last night at 1:30. The company commander went through this morning and I want to follow up so they can see the situation has my concern. We’ll talk to people. In Iraq everybody knows everybody. So they’ll figure that one out real quick.”
He also wanted to check out the market.
“Iraqis don’t normally drink coffee,” he said. “But we’re told there’s a guy now selling coffee. So we’re going to find out why he’s selling coffee and who is drinking the coffee.”
Lots of Arabs drink coffee, but he’s right that Iraqis do not. They have a tea culture here. Are there foreigners here buying the coffee? Fallujah is a closed city. They aren’t selling it to tourists from Morocco or Lebanon.
The colonel goes out on patrol with his men every week. He also goes to city council meetings regularly.
“He no longer has a place at the table,” Lieutenant J.C. Davis said. “He is only there as an advisor if they need him.”
“What was his role before?” I said.
“Basically, mayor,” he said.
The colonel said he wanted to minimize the presence of Marines.
“I’d like to see the convoys stop going through Fallujah,” he said. “I’d rather go around Fallujah. I want to hand the city back over.”
The former insurgency in the city had many causes, not the least of which was the perception that Americans were here to be an oppressor. Now that security has been restored, the Marines are pulling back hard.
“When you go on night patrols you’ll see people playing dominoes in the middle of the night,” Colonel Dowling said. “I’m not scooting ’em because it’s 23:00 and they’re supposed to be inside their doors. I’m out saying Hey, have some tea. Are you sleeping outside tonight? Please be safe. Those are the things a typical neighborhood cop would say. And that’s what I want to show them. I’m not shaking them down. I’m not kicking in doors. I’m not demanding information. I’m not taking over their house to use for a sniper. I’ll knock politely, and if they don’t want me in the house, we don’t go in the house.”
“Do you get attitude from people sometimes when you do that?” I said.
“I don’t get attitude for that,” he said. “But sometimes I’ll see someone on the street who gives me the stink eye. And I’ll stop that person on the street. I’ll say, hey, why are you upset? I’ll never attack him for giving me a dirty look. I’ll say You seem upset, what’s the matter? He’ll usually say I’m not upset. Or sometimes he’ll say I just woke up.” He laughed. “Then I’ll spend five or ten minutes with the guy and try to change his perception of a U.S. Marine and remind him what it was like a year ago, five months ago.”
We walked toward our waiting convoy of Humvees. Most patrols in the city are conducted out of small security stations in the various neighborhoods, but the colonel works at Camp Baharia outside the city. We would first have to drive in.
“We need to get you some gloves,” he said as we loaded up our gear. “In case there is an explosion.” At Camp Fallujah I saw gruesome photographs of the hands of Marines who survived explosions and who didn’t wear gloves. The colonel did not need to convince me.
No one suggested I wear gloves when I embedded with Army units. Nor had it ever occurred to me.
The drive into Fallujah from Camp Baharia took us through a dreary landscape of what the Marines and soldiers call “moon dust,” the finely grained grit that covers and blows all over everything in Western Iraq. You can’t touch anything or even go outside in this country without getting it all over you.
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Before crossing into Fallujah we passed the checkpoint that keeps non-resident vehicles out. Just past the checkpoint was a sign written in Arabic: Welcome to Fallujah. A Terrorist-Free City.
Brand new solar-powered street lights line the main roads. Now that insurgents no longer sabotage the electrical grid, Fallujah gets around twelve hours of electricity a day on average. (It used to be a lot less.) Getting street lights permanently off the electrical grid not only frees up power for televisions and air conditioners, it prevents the city from going dark even when the power is out. The Marines plan to have every street lit up with solar power in two years. Sunlight in this country is a terrible punisher for almost half the year, but it makes solar power almost a no-brainer, especially since the electrical system is already broken.
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Iraq’s Third World electrical system is partly disabled by Iraqi incompetence. When a transformer blows, everyone manually moves their wires to another transformer, which then in turn blows, and so on in a domino effect that never ends.
Just inside this overwhelmingly Sunni city is the Blue Mosque, which is Shia.
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The mosque was aligned with Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Mahdi Army militia until the Marines said it would be kept off the aid list if the imam didn’t drop his support for jihad. So the mosque came over the coalition side.
We dismounted from our Humvees and walked along the main street in the market area. Colonel Dowling struck up conversations with random Iraqis as we went. Most of the talk was just casual chit chat, but he did mention the hand grenade that was thrown at Marines. He wanted to make sure the locals knew they had his attention.
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If anyone knew who threw it, they didn’t say anything. The Iraqis did, however, voice their complaints. Many groused about the government in Baghdad. Fallujah was an important city when Saddam Hussein was in power. It’s not anymore. Ramadi is the capital of this province, in fact now as well as in name, but even that city is neglected by the central government.
One Iraqi wildly gesticulated while denouncing the “crazy countries,” Syria and Iran, for fomenting violence in his. The colonel listened with sympathy.
He cuts an intimidating personality on base when interacting with Marines, as colonels often do. With Iraqis, though, he seemed more like a jovial grandpa and a bit of a do-gooder type. I don’t think it was for show. He’s a professional, and he adjusts his behavior as needed.
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Our interpreter’s name was Al. He is originally from Cairo, but he lives now in Las Vegas and is an American citizen. Before he moved to Las Vegas he lived in Baghdad. He prides himself on his knowledge of Iraqi Arabic and his ability to speak it mostly without an accent and blend in as an Iraqi himself.
Later an old Iraqi man dressed in a sharp Western suit figured out where he was from. “You are Egyptian,” he said.
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This man busted our interpreter Al
“You’re busted, Al,” I said and laughed.
Fallujah looks filthy to my eyes, but the city is apparently a lot cleaner than it recently was. The Marines hire local day laborers to clean up the dump sites around town. Ramadi looked worse in August than Fallujah does now, but both are less trash-strewn than they were. There was no garbage collection during the insurgency. Security isn’t everything in Iraq, but none of these cities can function properly without it.
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New orange dumpsters have been set up every couple of blocks on the streets. The trash is picked up once a week by a Fallujah garbage collection company. Iraqis aren’t used to dumpsters, and they have to be told what they’re for. Some willingly dispose of their trash inside. Others, out of sheer habit and carelessness, still hurl their refuse onto sidewalks and into gutters and empty lots.
There is no getting around it: this place is ugly, and not only because of the garbage. The streets are dusty as well as filthy. There aren’t many trees. The architecture is brutal. Almost every house crouches behind a wall. The Marines have blocked off a huge number of streets with barbed wire and Jersey barriers. There are no nice restaurants and only a handful of the most basic stores. I’ve only seen one tea shop so far, and there is only one bar in the entire city, somewhere out there next to an empty building with no sign telling citizens what is inside. 99 percent of the people you see outside are men. Fallujah looks like a stern Islamic garrison city.
The Marines know it, too. They feel bad about their own contribution to its hideousness, so they paid local artists a good bit of money to paint murals on the barriers and the walls.
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The city may be hyperconservative, but that does not mean it is radical. At least it’s not anymore. Several children ran up to me and, after asking for candy and pictures, said “There are no terrorists in Fallujah.”
It isn’t quite true that there are no terrorists in Fallujah. As the colonel said, somebody threw a hand grenade at Marines just a few days before. Technically that was an act of guerrilla war rather than terrorism. But the line between guerrillas and terrorists is a thin one in Iraq. Often times the very same individuals who detonate IEDs beneath Humvees also explode car bombs in civilian markets.
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Just a few days ago, eleven people were rounded up and detained. I don’t know if they were foreigners or Iraqis, and I don’t know why they were arrested. That information is classified. But it happened. Total security is impossible in any country, and especially in a place like Iraq. In Fallujah, though, it is about as good as it can possibly be while the insurgency still grinds on elsewhere.
“My number one concern remains security,” Colonel Dowling told me. “My number two concern is education. I want the schools to be filled with kids. I want the schoolhouse teaching good information.”
“Is anybody monitoring the content of their education?” I said.
“No,” he said.
This surprised me. Schools in some parts of the Middle East are ideological indoctrination factories. I don’t know if this has been a problem in Fallujah or not, but someone should know.
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“I ask questions about ABCs,” the colonel continued. “I’ll go out there and see kids run up to me and they’ll just start reciting the ABCs. Or they’ll whip out their English books and they’ll start reading their English books to me.” I saw the same thing in Ramadi in August. “If I can get these folks to start speaking English, they really will be the bright future for Iraq.”
“When I asked about the curriculum,” I said, “I meant the politics.”
“I don’t think they’re doing that anymore,” he said.
“You know what I mean?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “They’re not…the imams understand what we’re trying to do right now.”
He sounded confident, but he also said no one was checking. The Marines do, however, have fluent Arabic speakers listen to what gets said in the mosques.
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“I make sure that my chaplain is out talking to the imams,” he continued. “He goes out once a week and sits and talks to them about religion, values, orphanges, things like that. They see a different perspective from him than they do from the typical Marine. They see that we’re very quick to help the poor, and that we’ll readily give the shirt off our backs, particularly the Marines. And we back it up. I go to a school once a week just to see what’s going on, and I’ve never heard any anti-coalition messages or anything like that. My Marines have never heard anything bad coming from the loudspeakers of the mosques. They either say coaltition forces are helpful, or a proverb, a direction on how to lead your life, or Thank God for the Iraqi Police. I prefer to hear a proverb and just erase or eliminate discussing anything about coalition forces, either good or bad.”
Aid for mosques is dependent on imams pitching jihad over the side, but the Marines don’t force a point of view on the Iraqis. Still, the colonel’s preference for no pro-coalition messages was counter-intuitive.
“Why would you not want the imams saying something good?” I said.
“They can do it inside the mosque,” he said, “but I don’t need them to announce it. I would rather have normalcy added back to their lives, so they can go back to the way they were 20 years ago or 40 years ago. That’s what I’d like to see.”
The U.S. is winning in Iraq right now, but losing in Afghanistan. (American conventional wisdom is terribly out of date in both countries.) Lots of the Marines I’ve spoken to here want to wrap up their mission and move on to the hotter, more pressing, battlefield. If all goes as well as they hope, the build-up in troops this year means fewer will be needed next year.
“The biggest thing we’ve got going for us is the surge,” said Lieutenant Edwards. “You’ve probably read about it or heard about it on television.”
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“Yeah,” I said and laughed. I witnessed and covered the surge myself in July and August.
“Has it helped us?” he said. “Extremely. What we can do is we can go in, knock out the enemy forces, and still leave forces there to remain and hold security down. We can then take our own forces, develop the Iraqi forces so that they can hold their own spot, then we can move to another one.”
The Marines have an extra 1,000 troops in the Fallujah area this year, but they aren’t in the city. There are far fewer Marines here now than there were.
“We went from having 3,000 Marines in the city last year to down around 300 now,” the lieutenant said. “Maybe 250.”
“So you didn’t surge Marines into the city,” I said.
“No,” he said. “We surged Marines around Fallujah. We either capture and kill AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq], or they move out. If we don’t kill or capture them, they move somewhere else. They avoid Fallujah now like it’s the plague.”
“Even though there are only a tenth as many Marines?” I said. “Are they afraid of the Iraqis?”
“They’re afraid of the Iraqis,” he said. “That’s what’s holding this place down. It’s the citizens and the Iraqi forces. We’re here as an overwatch in case something happens, but they’re holding their own. They’re holding their own security in the sense that if you fail, you fail your family and you fail your tribe. That’s humiliating for them, and it is not going to happen.”
As in Baghdad and Ramadi, children mobbed me everywhere I went on the street. They ran up to the Marines and asked for “chocolate,” which to them means any kind of candy at all. They also asked me for chocolate, but they also wanted me take pictures. “Mister! Mister! Sura!
Sura!” (sura means picture, I guess). Some wanted money.
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Lieutenant Colonel Chris Dowling beats an Iraqi boy in a thumb wrestling contest while our interpreter Al looks on.
Some Marines like to say “You give me money!” when the kids are particularly aggressive. The kids usually laugh and back off, understanding the point and not taking offense. I tried it myself and one kid actually pulled some cash out of his pocket and handed it over. “No, no, I was just joking,” I said. Occasionally an Iraqi adult took pity on my and shooed the kids away so I could photograph something else.
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Two nicely dressed men saw Colonel Dowling and bolted. “Hey!” he said in a friendly tone of voice. They froze and approached us warily, pretending to be friendly. The colonel chatted them up with some small talk, apparently to show them that the Marines are not (necessarily) out to get them. After a few minutes the colonel let them go with an amiable “see you later.” The two men moved away from us as quickly as they could without actually running.
“Public opinion is split about 70-30,” Lieutenant Davis said. “About 70 percent are with us to an extent, though they do want us to leave eventually. 30 percent want us to leave now, but they oppose us passively. I recently met a guy at the market who speaks pretty good English, and he made it very clear he wants us out of his country for good, and he wants us out now.”
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As we walked back toward the Humvees, a strung-out drug addict walked up behind Colonel Dowling and wildly waved a syringe in his hand. One of the Marines disarmed him, crouched, and bent the needle backwards on the sidewalk. He sealed it up in a plastic bag and brought it back to Camp Baharia for analysis.
“So what did you think?” the colonel said as we headed back to the base.
“It reminds me a bit of Ramadi,” I said.
“Ramadi is better than here,” he said.
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