FALLUJAH — At the end of 2006 there were 3,000 Marines in Fallujah. Despite what you might expect during a surge of troops to Iraq, that number has been reduced by 90 percent. All Iraqi Army soldiers have likewise redeployed from the city. A skeleton crew of a mere 250 Marines is all that remains as the United States wraps up its final mission in what was once Iraq’s most violent city.
“The Iraqi Police could almost take over now,” Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin told me. “Most logistics problems are slowly being resolved. My platoon will probably be the last one out here in the Jolan neighborhood.”
“The Iraqi Police in Jolan are very good,” Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added. “Elsewhere in Fallujah they’re not as far along yet. Theoretically we could leave the area now and they would be okay, except they would run out of money.”
Lieutenant Gary Laughlin
There’s more to the final mission than keeping the Iraqi Police solvent, however. The effort is focused on the Police Transition Teams. Their job is to train the Iraqi Police and bring them up to international standards so the locals can hold the city together after the last Americans leave.
A senior Marine officer whose name I didn’t catch grilled some of his men during a talk in the Camp Fallujah chow hall after dinner.
“Do you trust the Iraqi Police?” he said to a Marine who works on one of the teams.
“No, sir,” the Marine said without hesitation. That was the only acceptable answer. This was a test, not an inquiry.
“Why not?” the officer said.
“Because they’re not honest,” the Marine said.
“What do the Iraqi Police watch?” the officer said. “What are they looking at on a daily basis?”
“Us,” said several Marines in unison.
“They will emulate you, gents,” the officer said. “They. Will. Emulate you. Why? Because we came over here twice and kicked their ass. I do not trust the Iraqi Police today. Our job is to get them up to speed. They don’t need to be up to the standard of Americans. But they do need to be better than they are right now.”
An Iraqi Police officer
The Marine Corps runs the American mission in Fallujah, but some of the Police Transition Team members are Military Police officers culled from the Texas National Guard. “We’re like the red-headed stepchild of units,” one MP told me. “We’re from different units from all over Texas, as well as from the Marine Corps.”
One Texas MP used to be a Marine. “I decided I would rather defend my state than my country,” he said jokingly. “But here I am, back in Iraq.”
After I adjusted my embed to focus specifically on Police Transition Teams, I was nearly surrounded by young men from Texas. Many seemed to instinctively understand Fallujah’s infamous provincial “nationalism.”
“Fallujah pride is like Texas pride,” I heard from several MPs who, unlike Iraqis from Baghdad, didn’t think that was a bad thing.
A large rented house has been turned into a Joint Security Station where Marines and Iraqi Police live side by side
Training Iraqis to replace Marines is a lot less dangerous than fighting a war, but it’s harder. Every single American who has an opinion one way or the other told me it’s harder. Iraqis are not lumps of clay or blank slates that can be hand-molded or written on. They are human beings with their own complex history and culture. Most recently they were the brutally micromanaged subjects and enforcers of the regime of Saddam Hussein. If the Americans fail to field an effective local police force, Fallujah may go the way of Somalia and Gaza all over again — and next time there may be no one to save them.
Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t. The Iraqis lag more than a hundred years behind their teachers. “They’re where the American police were in the late 18th and 19th centuries,” said Lieutenant Brandon Pearson, a resident military expert in American Criminal Justice. You can see the broad outlines of what he means in old American movies that take place on the Western frontier in places with names like Dodge City. Corrupt lawmen sometimes sided with bad guys while decent, yet weak, lawmen cowered while gunslinging thugs terrorized entire communities.
Officially, on paper, the Americans don’t trust the Iraqis. The real world, though, is more complex and…human.
“I trust them little by little,” one MP said as he summed up the majority’s actual view. “I trust some of them, the ones we’re directly involved with and have a real relationship with. Otherwise, no, not really. I don’t. They act like a bunch of third graders, and there’s no telling what they do behind closed doors. But when we’re out there with them they’re doing their job, what they’re supposed to do.”
The Americans in Fallujah trust the Iraqi Police a lot more than the Iraqi Police trust the civilians. Many Iraqi Police officers still cover their faces when they go outside the station. They don’t want to be recognized, and therefore possibly targeted, by any remnants of the insurgency. Some Iraqi Police won’t let me take or publish their photographs.
The Iraqi Police are more trustworthy and competent than they used to be. Even the most jaded and pessimistic Marines admit that much, at least. But I do not trust them with my life. It’s not because I worry they might hurt me. In Fallujah that’s pretty unlikely. But I wouldn’t want them as bodyguards in a bad situation.
Sergeant Clarence Foster told me about one of those bad situations as we drank our morning coffee.
“Some bad guys kidnapped the daughter of a prominent city leader last night,” he said.
I sat upright. Whenever I started to think Fallujah might be a kinda sorta “safe” place to visit without armed protection, along came another reality check.
“They took her in the middle of the night,” he said.
“Are you going after them?” I said. “If so, I want to go with you.”
“We’re staying out of it,” he said. “The Iraqi Police are handling it. Last night they chased them into a cemetery. They let the girl go, but they’re still holed up out there.”
“This is still going on?” I said. “Right now?”
“Yeah,” he said.
For the briefest instant I considered going to the cemetery with the Iraqis, but it was a terrible idea.
“I guess I’m not going then,” I said. “I don’t trust them.”
“Well,” he said and laughed. “They aren’t as bad as they used to be. And besides, the kind of stuff that goes on here is like what happens in American cities now. It’s not like the old Fallujah.”
School girls walk home by themselves in Fallujah today. Not long ago, no children were out on the streets and schools were not even open.
Fallujah may not be like the old Fallujah. But it’s still Fallujah, and it always will be.
I sat down with Captain Stewart Glenn and his executive officer Lieutenant Chuck Miller at India Company’s train station FOB.
“The Marines were the catalyst for providing security,” Captain Glenn said. “But without guys like Colonel Faisal, Captain Jamal, and some of the leaders of the Iraqi Police, this never would have happened. The Marines had the idea of hiring a neighborhood watch, professionalizing the Iraqi Police, providing barriers so they have actual precincts which they can police. Instead of having a centralized station that goes out, they have small precincts now, which is also pretty common in the States. The idea came from the Marines, but the Iraqi Police took it, ran with it, and made it work.”
Precinct barriers force all vehicles through checkpoints that prevent weapons smuggling and car bombs
Barriers around Fallujah’s city limits prevent weapons smuggling and car bombs from outside the city
Fallujah’s current policing model did come from the Marines, and it’s based loosely on the American idea of community policing. Mayor Tom Potter — of my hometown Portland, Oregon — is credited by many for coming up with this method when he was our chief of police. When police officers live and work in their own neighborhoods, have relationships with key neighbors, and patrol small beats on foot as well as anonymously in police cars, trust and community cooperation with law enforcement increases. Crime drops precipitously. Mayor Rudy Giuliani more famously implemented some of the same ideas in New York City.
Captain Glenn and his men are with the 3rd Battalion 5th Regiment which rotated into Fallujah at the end of the summer in 2007. They inherited the current strategy from the Marines who came before them, and who finished off the insurgency just as they were getting ready to leave.
“Some units will come in and scrap the old unit’s plan,” he said. “We actually built on it. We kept it because it works. We’re not getting shot at. We’re not getting blown up.”
“That’s good,” I said. “I don’t want to get blown up either.”
“Yeah,” Captain Glenn said. “It’s pretty awesome. But complacency, you’ve got to fight it. There’s nothing like getting shot at to make you more alert.”
“Have you been shot at at all?”
“We had one pot shot over at ECP 3,” he said. ECP is short for Entry Control Point. “The Marine that was sitting in the post heard a round snap over his head, saw a muzzle flash, then went and investigated. He found a 7.62 casing. And there was another report at another outpost where there was a similar incident. A pot shot at the post. Couldn’t see where it was coming from.”
“They found a hole in a sand bag to indicate that somebody did take a shot,” Lieutenant Miller said.
“But they never saw anybody or anything,” Captain Glenn said. “Those are the only two incidents of any kind of activity against coalition forces in our sector. It could be a wide variety of things. It could be somebody shooting a dog and the round…that does happen.”
“That’s something we have to be very aware of with the Iraqi Police sometimes,” Lieutenant Miller said. “You’ve been to Baghdad, I’m sure there’s a dog problem everywhere. Some people will just spray them with the AK-47 and Inshallah where the round goes.”
There is a dog problem in Baghdad, and it’s sad. Both Iraqis and Americans have been known to shoot dogs. They don’t do it because they’re sadistic killers, but because the dogs are wild. And the dogs are trouble. Lieutenant Miller is right, though, about the Iraqi Police. Their near-complete lack of muzzle discipline and careless aiming gets a lot of people hurt and even killed.
“We follow the safety rule of knowing our target and what lies beyond it,” Captain Glenn said. “They know their target, and that’s about it. Like when people shoot up in the air. It’s not a real popular thing to do in America. Gravity works. A bullet that goes up must come down.”
By all accounts the Iraqi Police in Fallujah are in much better shape than they were, even though they still have serious problems. Whether they’re ready for prime time or not, they’re being shoved into the role. Some Marines think they’re ready. Others do not. Captain Glenn and Lieutenant Miller are more optimistic than some.
“The Iraqi Police are really taking the lead at this point,” Captain Glenn said. “They have the capability and the initiative right now.”
“I think if we pulled back pretty substantially in a couple different places in the city,” Lieutenant Miller said, “you wouldn’t even know we were gone.”
“As a matter of fact,” Captain Glenn said, “the Iraqi Police used to want the Marines to lead. Now they say we’ve got it, we’ll call you if we need to.”
“So what, exactly, is your purpose here then?” I said.
“Transition,” he said. “Getting the Iraqi Police to totally take the lead. They still have deficiencies when it comes to their logistics, when it comes to their administration, their communications. So we help facilitate that. We’re helping build the city government…well, not build it, but facilitate it. Because we do appear to be the power brokers, if you will, we push the government to do what it needs to do.”
“Are you the power brokers in the city?” I said.
The Marines were the closest thing Fallujah had to a government for a while, but the mayor’s office, the city council, and the neighborhood leaders known as muktars are back in business again. No American is “mayor” of Fallujah anymore.
“I wouldn’t say we’re the power brokers,” Captain Glenn said. “But the Iraqis perceive that we are. I think the average Iraqi sees that we’re America and that we control everything here.”
“The average American probably sees it that way, as well,” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “Well, they’re not dumb. They see that our country’s GDP is trillions of dollars. They know we have what they perceive to be the best medical care in the world. Most Americans don’t believe that, but the Iraqis do. So there’s a perception there.”
“It’s definitely a team effort,” Lieutenant Miller said. “We work hand in hand with them. It really feels like the Iraqi Police have the lead. They’re telling us we don’t have to go on as many patrols.”
“There are a lot of different agencies out there,” Captain Glenn said, “that help the Iraqi Police and help them to become a stronger force, different agencies within the Marines Corps like the Police Transition Teams. Their sole focus is the Iraqi Police. That’s what they do. They train the Iraqi Police. How to conduct a proper investigation, CSI type stuff. How to be a detective. Stuff that I’m not very well trained in. I can provide them with guidance and oversight, but these guys are the ones who are the experts in that. They get the training on how to do it. They’re MPs, they’re military policemen, so they understand the investigative process, they understand how to be a detective, they understand how to do CSI.”
“We can train the Iraqis on how to handle their weapons properly,” he continued, “how to load and shoot their weapon straight. How to move out in the city. How to enter a house. Some of the Rule of Law things. For example, when you go into someone’s house it is not okay to go to the refrigerator and take a drink. You know what I mean? It’s a small thing, but they’re supposed to be the good guys and this is how good guys act. That’s how we affect the police. They see us doing it right, and they really want to be like us. I’m not saying that to be egotistical. You’ll see them on patrol and they’ll start looking like Marines on a patrol. They’re not just walking on the street to walk on the street. They see the Marines, and the Marines are attentive, they’re looking down alleyways and making sure everything is clear, then pushing past it. That’s what we call a danger area.”
“They’ve also come a long way with the dispatching,” Lieutenant Miller said. “Within each precinct we have an operations center with an Iraqi Police side and a Marine side. They coordinate with each other when they go out so that when the Iraqi Police go out we know where they’re going and what they’re doing. And it’s just as important that we tell them what we’re doing because you don’t want an incident where somebody accidentally gets hurt.”
“Just like a patrol route,” Captain Glenn said. “You know, the Marines put up a patrol route and say this is where we’re going to go. It’s small stuff, and I know it isn’t real sexy. But this is how you make a country.”
One of the people who help the Marines train the Iraqis is, oddly enough, another Iraqi.
His semi-official name is Staff Sergeant Crash. He is not a Marine, so he is not really a staff sergeant. And his name, obviously, is not really Crash. He’s an Iraqi interpreter who goes by a pseudonym. And he is authorized to go by the rank of staff sergeant because he saved the life of a real American staff sergeant in battle.
“I’ve been fighting with the Marines in Fallujah for three years,” he told me.
“Fighting?” I said. “You mean they let you carry a weapon?”
“Yeah,” he said and laughed as if my question was silly. But it was not a silly question. I had not yet met an Iraqi interpreter who is allowed to carry and fire a weapon in combat. None of the interpreters I met with Army were allowed to do that. The Marines, though, kept trying to put a gun in my hand, so it’s perhaps not surprising that they’re willing to let their most trusted Iraqi comrades shoot, too.
“Crash here just earned himself a Green Card,” one of his Marine buddies told me. “He’s moving to San Diego, and you know what he’s gonna do there? He’s going to boot camp. He’s going to become a Marine.”
“Congratulations,” I said to Crash. “You’ve been fighting with Americans for three years, and now you’re one of us.”
He grinned. “I won’t be able to wear the rank of staff sergeant anymore, though.”
“It’s going to be tough for him,” his buddy said, “when he goes to boot camp. Some drill sergeant who has never seen combat is going to call Crash here a stupid piece of shit after he fought with us for three years.”
Crash did not seem to mind, not really. He knows all about boot camp, and expects to rise in the ranks fairly quickly once he gets out.
For every unreliable Iraqi Police officer, there is someone like Crash around to balance him out. Or someone like Superkid.
“Superkid is just great,” Lieutenant Eric Laughlin said. “He’s the best. He’s been with us since 2006. He always wants to go on patrol with me. Some Iraqi Police officers are lazy and are only with us now because it’s safe to be with us now. Those who have been with us since 2004 are very brave, serious, and they really care about their city.”
Some Marines told me that Subzero is their favorite Iraqi. And he hasn’t been with the Marines since 2004 because he is only 18 years old.
Subzero was friendly to me…until I tried to take his picture.
“No, no, no, no, no!” he said and covered his face and turned away from me. After I put down my camera he made a slashing motion across his throat.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I won’t take your picture.” But he doesn’t understand English and may not have understood.
I did have one blurry photograph that showed the back of Subzero’s head as he shadowboxed with Specialist Tomas Morales. He said it was okay if I published that one.
He avoided me after that, and I did not take it personally. My camera made him nervous. Iraqi Police and Iraqi interpreters go by names like Crash, Superkid, and Subzero because Al Qaeda hunts them and their families. Appearing in newspapers and, especially, on the Internet is risky and brings no reward. Some don’t worry about it, but many do.
I tried to take a photo of another Iraqi Police officer and he, like Subzero, yelled no and made a slashing motion across his throat with his finger. Then he pointed at a poster on the wall that showed the handsome face of another Iraqi Police officer. He made that slashing motion again after pointing at this picture. “Muj,” he said, which is short for mujahideen. “Muj finished him. No photo.”
If I understood him correctly, he meant that Al Qaeda killed this man because they recognized his face from the photograph that appeared around town.
The Iraqi — who wished to remain anonymous — explained further in his limited English. “My father, brother, sister…” he said, then made that slashing motion again.
“His family was killed by Al Qaeda,” a Marine added helpfully. “They were killed because he’s a police officer.”
The Iraqi Police officer nodded.
“He went out all by himself and killed the people who did it,” the Marine said.
The officer nodded again.
Sometimes it’s hard to know who and what to believe in Iraq. The Marines seem to believe him, so maybe it’s true. But Iraqis exaggerate, and they do it a lot. Most exaggerate the crimes of their enemies, and many exaggerate their own heroism.
“If we hear that a woman was raped, maybe she was,” Captain Glenn said. “And maybe somebody just leered at her. We have to filter what they say through that understanding and investigate a bit further to find out what, in fact, actually happened. You are an American. I know how to listen to you and what you mean when you say something. If you tell me your wife was raped, we’ll go out right away and find the people who did it.”
Four Iraqi Police officers carried one of their injured comrades into the station. A bloody broken bone jutted out the top of his bare left foot. He winced severely and was obviously in a great deal of pain.
“Man, that’s gotta hurt,” I heard a Marine say. “I first thought it was another negligent discharge. The Iraqi Police shoot each other all the time.”
Almost every time I heard a random gun shot in Fallujah, some Marine or other told me not to worry about it. “It’s just the Iraqi Police,” was the typical answer. Either somebody fired off a round on accident, or somebody fired a shot in the air. It happened almost every day. It struck me that embedding with the Iraqi Police might be the most dangerous thing I could do in Fallujah. I was more likely to be shot by a police offier on accident than by an insurgent on purpose.
“Do you think what you’re doing now is still counterinsurgency?” I said to Lieutenant Andrew Macak. “Or have you moved on to something else?”
“I think today is a perfect example of what counterinsurgency actually is,” he said. “There is not a whole lot of kinetic activity day-to-day, even though that’s what people join the Marines Corps to do, for the sense of adventure and everything. That’s what we spend most of our time training for. A lot of that is gone now. But in order to be thorough and complete our mission, it’s very important for us to do what we’re doing right now.”
Counterinsurgency does involves kinetic warfare, of course. That’s what the Marines spent most of their time doing in Fallujah and the surrounding area. But the tail end of a successful counterinsurgency mission has to involve what is essentially peacekeeping and nation-building in order to first stabilize and then rebuild the devastated society.
“As far as enemy activity goes now,” Lieutenant Macak said, “it’s mostly handled by the Iraqi Security Forces. All we really do is cordon-and-knock raids. Actually, I shouldn’t even call them raids. Raids is more of a kinetic term. We’ll just cordon off an area and go in to see what’s going on. If there is an insurgent living in there, he probably won’t be sitting with his AK-47 ready. He’ll probably just play stupid like he doesn’t know what’s going on, that he doesn’t know what we’re talking about. They capitalize on the Marines lesser knowledge of who’s in the area, which is why we take Iraqi Police with us when we go out on patrol. The Iraqi Police officers know who is being deceptive.”
“Do you still do some of the cordon and knock raids?” I said. I was itching to see some kind of drama. Of course I’m relieved that I wasn’t in very much danger and that the war in that part of Iraq is effectively over, but it felt perversely unsatisfying at times, like I had arrived just a few months too late.
“We have a couple of target packages that we haven’t had a chance to get to yet,” he said.
I went on a another foot patrol from the Khaderi police station. Normally the Americans let the Iraqi Police lead the way to make it appear that they are in charge, even though they are not. But this patrol was at night.
“We go on joint patrols with the Iraqis during the day,” Second Lieutenant A.J. DeSantis said. “We go out alone after dark, though, because the Iraqis get lost.”
The Iraqis get lost at night. In their own city. Even though the Americans don’t.
I’ve been driven around by taxi drivers in Beirut who have the same problem. Beirut is small; it only takes an hour to walk from one end to the other. I can’t explain how a native Lebanese who works as a driver can get lost in such a small city and rely on me for directions. All I can say is that it happens once in a while, and I know several other Americans who say the same thing happens sometimes to them. Additionally, hardly anyone in the Middle East knows how to give directions. It’s just one of those things, and it probably isn’t fixable.
So we walked the streets at night by ourselves and left the Iraqis behind so they wouldn’t get lost. Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Supposedly the Iraqi Police at the Khaderi are good, and better than most in Fallujah. The station is clean and well-organized. Every American I spoke to said the Iraqis there were otherwise competent. “Are they Marines?” Lieutenant A.J. DeSantis asked me rhetorically. “No. But they don’t need to be. They just need to keep their neighborhood safe.” And besides, if a sense of direction and navigation is a cultural weakness for even otherwise competent police officers, the insurgents likely have the same problem for the same reasons.
The lieutenant walked alongside me. I snapped a few pictures in the dark.
Somewhere off in the distance a dog barked.
“There’s some weird dogs in this country,” he said. “Not many Iraqis have dogs, you know. They think they’re unclean. Most of these dogs are wild. But there was this one dog that I’ll never forget. We heard it barking and growling at us from behind somebody’s wall. It was a pet or a guard dog or something, and it sounded enormous, vicious, and threatening. So we went to check it out. It was a guard dog, alright. But it was a Pomeranian. A goddamn Pomeranian guard dog. Strangest thing I’ve ever seen.”
I laughed and wasn’t sure what to make of that.
“So, what’s the purpose of this patrol, exactly?” I said. Not a lot happens on patrols in Fallujah anymore. I found them boring after a while. But the Marines and the Iraqi Police still patrol every part of the city on foot every day.
“To show a presence,” Lieutenant DeSantis said. “And to gather some intel. To see if some insurgents are around trying to plant IEDs. There’s one guy we’ve been looking for who drives a [redacted] vehicle, and we’ll detain him on sight if we can find him.”
We stopped and talked to several groups of Iraqis who were out at night minding their stores. The lieutenant asked if they had seen anything suspicious and if they had any complaints. The first group we spoke to was a family who ran a corner grocery. None said they had seen anything suspicious. All complained about the ongoing shortage of electricity. Two men also said they had seen nothing suspicious. They were primarily concerned with schools.
“We’re refurbishing the schools with our own money,” said one of the Iraqis.
The Marines listened respectfully and said they were trying to get more money from Baghdad.
“It costs 100 dollars for the vehicle sticker,” said another young Iraqi.
That is a scandal. Only residents of Fallujah are allowed to drive in the city, and only if they have a sticker issued by the Iraqi Police on their windshield. Charging 100 dollars for that sticker in a city where the average salary is only 300 dollars per month, and where unemployment is greater than 50 percent, is hardly a strategy for earning the support and respect of the locals.
“I will take care of it,” Lieutenant DeSantis said. “Most of the Iraqi Police are new. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but they are improving.”
“And the fuel,” said the first Iraqi. “It is too expensive. We need fuel to heat our houses. It gets cold here in winter. You will see.”
I felt like I was out with cops who moonlight as politicians, not the fiercest of all American warriors. I can see why there are only 250 Marines in the city. Fallujah really isn’t a war zone anymore. It seems like the Marines really should be able to leave once the local government and the Iraqi Police get their act together. Many say that would rather go to Afghanistan where they can still “get some.”
A minority of Marines, however, think this is naive wishful thinking.
“None of the bad guys dares to take a shot at us because they know it’s a death sentence if they do,” one of them said. “But they’ll go after the Iraqi Police once we pull out.”
“As soon as we leave, it’s going to pop off again,” said another.
There is no way they can know that is true. It is just a gut feeling based on what they’ve seen and what they’ve heard, and it’s the minority viewpoint. But a gloomy Army soldier I met last summer in Baghdad said something so simple, depressing, and obviously correct that I doubt I will ever forget it.
“Iraq will always be Iraq,” he said as he shook his head and stared at his feet.
To be continued.
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The Final Mission, Part I