Michael Totten

The Final Mission, Part III

Humvee Dubat Fallujah.jpg
ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ — The United States plans to hand Anbar Province over to the Iraqis next month if nothing catastrophic erupts between now and then. The Marines will stick around a while longer, though, and complete their crucial last mission — training the Iraqi Police to replace them.
The local police force would collapse in short order without American financial and logistics support. “The biggest problem they have is supply,” Corporal Hayes said to me in Fallujah. “They’re always running out of gas and running out of bullets. How are they supposed to police this city with no gas and no bullets?”
What they need more than anything else, though, in the long run anyway, is an infusion of moderate politics. Fallujah is in the heartland of the Sunni Triangle. The city was ferociously Baathist during the rule of Saddam Hussein. It is surly and reactionary even today. Even by Iraqi standards. Even after vanquishing the insurgency. Fallujans may never be transformed into Jeffersonian liberal democrats, but young men from New York, California, and Texas are taking the Iraqis by the hand and gently repairing their political culture.
I accompanied Lieutenant Andrew Macak and Lieutenant Eric Montgomery to an ethics class they taught to members of the Anbar Provincial Security Forces (PSF). PSF members are police officers who operate at the provincial level rather than the city level, much like state police in the U.S. The class was held at a station in Karmah, a small city wedged between Fallujah and Baghdad. Coursework included the ethical responsibilities of police officers, the importance of human rights, and the permissible rules of engagement in counterinsurgency operations. The material was the same as that taught by Marines everywhere in Al Anbar — in Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, and Haditha.
“We’re teaching them about the Law of Armed Conflict,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. “If they become a police state, people are not going to support them.”
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Post-Saddam Iraq is not a police state. Even so, while it’s orders of magnitude more moderate and humane than the genocidal and fascistic regime it replaced, many individuals in the government and police departments have rough authoritarian habits that are rooted in Arab culture itself as much as they are legacies from the previous era.
“If we find Al Qaeda guys or weapons traffickers, we capture them,” Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin said. “Iraqi Police, though, are too rough with detainees, more than I think is morally acceptable. They are rough before anything has been proven. They aren’t hitting them, necessarily, but they are pushing them and throwing them around. We report this to Captain Jamal in Jolan. He takes care of it.”
Many Iraqi government officials and police officers have a hard time adjusting to the standards expected of them, but a small number are real stand-up guys who want to do the right thing.
“Captain Jamal is very pro-active,” Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot said. “That’s not a typical trait among Iraqis, except, unfortunately, among the insurgents. He’s pro-active in building up the community, not just in fighting insurgents. He throws parties. He holds town hall meetings. He rents a tent, chairs, loudspeakers, cameramen, everything that matters. He spends money out of his own pocket. Where he gets that money, I don’t know.”
The regions of Iraq that suffered most from the insurgency are, perhaps not surprisingly, more strongly anti-terrorist than other parts of the country. Likewise, Iraqis from these regions who suffered the most tend to be more committed to responsible moderate politics.
“Captain Jamal’s brother’s house was blown up and he was killed,” Lieutenant Barefoot said. “He was targeted because his brother is an Iraqi Police captain. It was a highly motivating experience.”
I rode with four Marines in a Humvee to the Karmah station for the human rights class. On the way we heard gunshots.
“I’m hearing heavy gunfire,” our gunner said. He stood in the open-air turret on top of the vehicle and could hear better than we could. All I heard was the roar of the engine.
“Where’s it coming from?” Lieutenant Montgomery said.
“From the south,” the gunner said. “It sounds like a heavy fire fight, sir. I think it might be at the sheikh’s house.”
Well, I thought. I was just outside Fallujah and getting closer to Baghdad. Something dramatic was bound to happen sooner or later if I stayed in the area long enough. Right?
Not necessarily.
While trying to figure out what was going on, we pulled into the parking lot at the station and found the local sheikh in an argument with Anbar Provincial Security Force officers and Marines. He was trying to secure the release of several Al Qaeda ringleaders and IED makers who had just been captured and who were partly responsible for the vicious murder and intimidation campaign that had only recently ended.
“You have to let them go,” the sheikh said.
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“We can’t let them go,” Lieutenant Montgomery said
“You have to release these people so they will be less mad,” the sheikh said. “Otherwise they might start it all up again.”
“That is completely unacceptable,” Lieutenant Macak said. “They are members of Al Qaeda. They killed coalitions forces. And they can’t start anything up again if they’re in prison. If they’re guilty, they won’t be released any time soon.”
Most low level insurgents are placed into the Iraqi criminal justice system when captured, but detainees face American military justice if they’ve killed Americans.
It was a bit strange to hear how local authorities will sometimes abuse detainees before they are even charged with a crime, and then minutes later hear a sheikh plead on behalf of a high-level insurgency leader.
“It’s such twisted logic,” Lieutenant Montgomery whispered to me.
Is it, though? Earlier I was told that the very people who inform on insurgents will unseriously go through the motions of trying to secure their release. They do this to prevent retaliatory attacks from insurgents still at large in the area. Perhaps that’s what was happening here, but it’s hard to say.
Someone in Iraq was obviously happy these alleged Al Qaeda leaders were captured. The gunfire our gunner had heard just a few minutes before wasn’t a fire fight. It was a celebration.
“They’re firing off all the ammo we gave them,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. Our gunner had said the shots sounded like they were in front of the sheikh’s house. I seriously had to wonder then: did the sheikh really want these insurgents released from custody? Franky, I doubt it. But I don’t know, this is Iraq. The wheels are on crooked, and there are no straight lines in this country.
I stood outside the classroom and drank tea with Lieutenant Macak, Lieutenant Montgomery, and our Palestinian interpreter who called himself Tom. While I stirred and sipped my tea, Tom chain-smoked Gauloises cigarettes imported from France.
“Tom, do you have a lighter?” Lieutenant Montgomery said.
“Tom doesn’t need a lighter,” Lieutenant Macak said. “He just lights one from the other.”
Tom laughed and handed over the lighter. Lieutenant Montgomery lit a Camel and inhaled deeply.
“If we can get the Iraqis to not beat detainees,” he said, “that’s a big step.”
Meanwhile, Americans back home argue about whether water-boarding is torture and if it should be outlawed. I’ve had no exposure to interrogators who are tasked with extracting information from high-level terrorists like Khaled Sheikh Mohammad — who reportedly really was water-boarded. But I can say, for whatever it’s worth, that I heard nothing but “liberal” opinions about how ordinary detainees should be treated from every soldier and Marine who talked about it, both on the record and off. Military justice, I suspect, is more in line with the values of domestic liberals and Democrats than many probably realize.
Prisoner abuse is a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. American Marines spend a great deal of time and energy trying to eradicate the practice in Iraqi Police departments.
The class was about to begin, so we set aside our glasses of tea and put out our cigarettes.
Twenty or so Iraqi Provincial Security Force officers filed in and sat on hard wooden benches facing the white board. I took an empty seat in the front.
It was no warmer inside the classroom than outside. Windows were broken and sand-bagged.
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The power was out and the heat was off. Iraq got cold fast. It was warm when I arrived, hot a mere two weeks before I arrived, and then it was very suddenly freezing. Summer is long, winter is short, but spring and fall only last about two weeks apiece. Iraq is one of the least physically comfortable countries on Earth.
Some of the Iraqis had sore throats. While they made tea for themselves and for us, one of the Marines gave them packets of Vitamin C to boost their immune systems against the virus that was going around.
Before getting into the ethics of policing and warfare, Lieutenant Montgomery discussed weapon safety. “Don’t point your weapon at anything you don’t intend to shoot,” he said to the Iraqis seated in front of him. He said that with a straight face. The Iraqis listened and kept straight faces of their own as if they were actually taking him seriously.
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Lieutenant Eric Montgomery
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Anbar Provincial Security Force officers
It was a laughable moment from a bizarro world where the Americans pretend to be teaching and the Iraqis pretend to be learning. The Iraqis have heard this hundreds of times, but they are not going to change their behavior any time soon. They will point their weapons at me. They will point their weapons at their American allies and teachers. They will point their weapons at their fellow Iraqi Police officers. They will point their weapons at you if you ever go to Iraq. They recklessly wave the barrels of their rifles in every direction. Those rifles are almost always in Condition One — ready to fire — even though they ought to be in Condition Three or Four. I was more likely to be shot by an Iraqi Police officer on accident than by an insurgent on purpose.
But the Marines drive the point home over and over again anyway. The Iraqis know what they’re supposed to do. They know how to do it even if they don’t want to do it. At some point, though, they might say enough after accidentally shooting each other too many times and decide it’s time to implement those safety regulations they’ve heard so much about.
Lieutenant Montgomery spent most of his time in the classroom talking about human rights and the very restrictive rules of engagement that apply to American and Iraqi combatants. (Police officers, unfortunately, are often counterinsurgent combatants. They aren’t handing out speeding tickets like regular officers in countries that are not at war. They are part of the multinational coalition in Iraq, and their rules of engagement are dictated to them by Americans.
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The Marines are not imposing American values per se on the Iraqis. They’re grounded in international law, and they’re deadly serious about it. Lieutenant Montgomery didn’t give a lecture on the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, or anything else that is particular of or exclusive to the United States. Instead, he taught the “U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials”:http://www.answers.com/topic/u-n-code-of-conduct-for-law-enforcement-officials.
“The human rights in question are identified and protected by national and international law,” the Code of Conduct says. “Among the relevant international instruments are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.”
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An Iraqi Police officer in Fallujah
“No law enforcement official may inflict, instigate, or tolerate any act of torture or other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. He read it off the white board.
Later, I cross-referenced what he said with the Code of Conduct itself. As it turned out, he was quoting from it verbatim.

No law enforcement official may inflict, instigate or tolerate any act of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, nor may any law enforcement official invoke superior orders or exceptional circumstances such as a state of war or a threat of war, a threat to national security, internal political instability or any other public emergency as a justification of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Lieutenant Macak had some words of his own for the class. “If someone confesses under torture,” he said, “that confession is useless.”
According to planet-wide conventional wisdom, United States soldiers and Marines are on an abusive rampage in Iraq. Relentless media coverage of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib — which really did occur, but which the United States didn’t sanction or tolerate — seriously distorted what actually goes on in Iraq most of the time. The United States military is far from perfect and is hardly guilt-free, but it’s the most law-abiding and humane institution in Iraq at this time.
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“Human rights are legal tools in the hands of citizens against abuse of power by an oppressive state,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. “If human rights are not respected, sooner or later it will lead to violence and instability…Human rights are rights that derive from the inherent dignity and worth of the person, and they are universal, inalienable, and equal. They are the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace. They belong to people simply because they are human.” Again, he read from it the white board. All Iraqi Police officers in Al Anbar are exposed to this material.
It is imparted to Iraqi Police and Provincial Security Force officers through instruction. It is demonstrated to Iraqi civilians by example.
Lieutenant Macak told me about a local woman some Marines met who was missing a leg. Needless to say, she had a hard time getting around. These Marines pooled their resources and bought her a wheelchair with money from their own salaries.
Such people do not wish to recklessly fire their weapons and harm civilians. Their rules of engagement are sharply restrictive, much more so than most American civilians have any idea. The rules are certainly more restrictive than Iraqi civilians expected when the Americans showed up in force in 2003.
Some Marines complain about the rules which might even be a bit too restrictive. “You can’t defend yourself out here,” one sergeant told me. “If you’re manning a checkpoint, and a car is coming at you going 90 miles an hour, you can only shoot after it’s less than 25 meters away. You have less than one second to legally stop it, and it could be a VBIED [a Vehicle-borne IED, or a car bomb]. If you shoot quicker than that, you go to jail.”
Lieutenant Montgomery went over several what-if scenarios with his students.
“You’re in a convoy,” he said, “and you see a man crouching behind a tree 100 meters off the road. You see a garbage bag on the side of the road with wires sticking out of it. What can you do?”
Three Iraqis partially answered the question. All answered correctly. None said it would be okay to shoot the guy even though it is very possible that he’s an IED trigger man.
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If the police officers sitting in that classroom ever believed it was American policy to indiscriminately shoot at Iraqis, they certainly know better now.
I’ve said before that American soldiers and Marines aren’t the bloodthirsty killers of the popular (in certain quarters) imagination, and that they are far less racist against Arabs than average Americans. They are also, famously, less racist against each other, and they have been since they were forcibly integrated after World War II. This is due to sustained everyday contact with each other and with Iraqis. The stereotype of the racist and unhinged American soldier and Marine is itself a bigoted caricature based almost entirely on sensationalist journalism and recklessly irresponsible war movies.
Liberal journalist George Packer has spent a lot of time in Iraq and is a reliable critic of the Bush Administration and the war. He, like me, has his opinions and doesn’t conceal them. But he reports what he sees honestly and comprehensively. You can trust him whether you agree with his views or not.
In a current World Affairs article “he pans some of Hollywood’s recent anti-war box office flops”:http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/winter-2008/full-iraq.html. “[T]he films…present the war as incomprehensible mayhem,” he wrote, “and they depict American soldiers as psychopaths who may as well be wearing SS uniforms. The G.I.s rape, burn, and mutilate corpses, torture detainees, accelerate a vehicle to run over a boy playing soccer, wantonly kill civilians and journalists in firefights, humiliate one another, and coolly record their own atrocities for entertainment. Have these things happened in Iraq? Many have. But in the cinematic version of the war, these are the only things that happen in Iraq. At a screening of The Situation, I was asked to discuss the film with its director, Philip Haas. Why had he portrayed the soldiers in cartoon fashion, I wondered. Why had he missed their humor, their fear, their tenderness for one another and even, every now and then, for Iraqis? Because, Haas said, he wanted to concentrate on humanizing his Iraqi characters instead.”
It’s not hard to humanize Iraqis and Americans. A competent writer or director can do both at the same time. In fact, it requires deliberate effort or willful ignorance for a writer or director to humanize Iraqis while at the same time dehumanizing Americans. Packer humanizes both because he’s a good writer, he’s honest, and he actually works in Iraq. He leaves his fortified hotel compound and makes an effort to get it right, unlike so many writers, directors, and journalists in the stereotype-manufacturing industries.
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You know who else is in Iraq and therefore knows what the country is really like? Iraqis. (Of course.) They see and experience much of the same kinds of events George Packer and I have seen and experienced. They don’t learn about Iraq from Reuters and Hollywood. And they are less anti-American than they were during the initial invasion in 2003 — at least many of those who have had sustained contact with Marines and soldiers. Sustained contact with the “other” breaks down bigotry all around, even in war zones.
The violent strain of anti-Americanism in Fallujah and the surrounding area has ebbed almost completely. People here know Americans are not the enemy. They know Americans protect them from murder and intimidation from the head-choppers and car bombers. They know Americans provide medical care to Iraqis hurt by insurgents and even to insurgents wounded in battle.
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If the Iraqis who listen to the Marines’ lectures on human rights and the rules of engagement ever took seriously the once common comparison between the American invasion of 2003 and the bloodthirsty Mongol invasion of the 13th Century, they certainly don’t anymore. They may not absorb all the lessons of their coursework, and they may still resent the American presence on principle to an extent, but at least they know what Americans really are like as people and warriors. The class taught by Lieutenant Eric Montgomery wasn’t designed with public relations in mind, but it has that effect all the same.
“If the police are dishonest and corrupt,” Lieutenant Montgomery said, “the entire government will be viewed as dishonest and corrupt. Of all the agents of the government, you are the ones the people will have the most direct contact with. So it’s more important for you to be honest than it is for anyone else.”
Many Iraqi Police officers, though, are not honest.
“One police chief is thought to be smuggling weapons in,” Captain Stewart Glenn said to me back in Fallujah. “Trouble is we can’t prove it. So we’re not doing much at the moment. We can’t arrest him. He is widely respected in the community for helping secure the area. So we don’t want to arrest him because the locals would go what the hell? We’re in a tough spot with this guy.”
“Iraqi Police said they couldn’t go on patrol with us because they were out of fuel,” said another Marine whose name I didn’t catch. “So we bought them fuel. The very same day we saw them selling that fuel on the side of the road. We give them guns, and the guns disappear. Now we make them put a deposit down on the weapon before we give it to them. That took care of the problem.”
“There can be no abuse of power by the state,” Lieutenant Montgomery said to his class. Iraqis certainly didn’t get that civics lesson from the regime of Saddam Hussein. They did, however, acquire many bad habits from the regime of Saddam Hussein.
After class, the Marines led the Iraqis outside and showed them how to search potentially dangerous suspects.

The Iraqis laughed as they tried out their new moves. It looked like they were only half serious.
“These guys aren’t the sharpest tools in the drawer,” a Marine said to me as I snapped some pictures.
“Well,” I said. “Hopefully some of it sticks.”
“Some of it does,” he said. “It does.”
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