ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ — The Iraqi town of Al Farris looks like a model Soviet city up close and a rounded square from the sky. Saddam Hussein built it to house workers in the now-defunct weapons factory to the east, and they live in neighborhoods called City 1, City 2, City 3, City 4, and City 5. “Socialist living at its finest,” Sergeant Edward Guerrero said as we rolled through the gates in a Humvee. The place made me think of Libya, where I have been, and North Korea, where I have not.
Al Farris, Iraq, Google Earth
Al Farris was part of Saddam’s attempt to launch Iraq into the sci-fi future before he ruined his country with four wars, two genocides, and an international sanctions regime. It was a failure. Like all utopian cities, Al Farris is dreary. Every apartment building is nearly identical. There are few stores, restaurants, or other businesses at street level. There certainly is no traditional Arabic souk. If it weren’t for the vaguely Arabesque windows, little would distinguish it from any other drab worker’s paradise.
“It’s like a gulag city,” one Military Police officer said. The grace note, if I could call it that, is the encircling coil or razor wire at the city limits which keeps insurgents from coming in and blowing up buildings and people. Billowing plastic bags have been snagged along the length of the wire.
Sergeant Guerrero had a private meeting scheduled with the local Iraqi Police chief, so I climbed a ladder to the roof where I could get a better view.
An Iraqi Police officer pointed out an American military outpost on top of the water tower. His job entailed sitting in silence in a rooftop bunker with a machine gun in case the station is attacked. I assumed the Americans on the water tower overwatched the city with sniper rifles. I didn’t ask, but if they are it would not be a secret.
Back in Fallujah, Captain Steve Eastin explained why.
“We can’t put up a sniper’s nest without everyone knowing,” he said. “So we’ve decided to use that knowledge to our advantage. It works for us that insurgents know they could be shot by a sniper at any time.”
I climbed back down the ladder into the police station and was struck by the number of scuff marks on the walls. How do they get there? Clean white paint now makes up less than half the walls’ surface area, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the Iraqis are doing to make them look like this.
An Iraqi Police officer behind a desk saw my camera and beckoned me over. He wanted me to take his photograph. He summoned more Iraqis to stand next to him and pose with suddenly serious expressions on their faces. Just before I clicked the shutter, the officer picked up the phone and placed the receiver next to his ear, as if it would make him look more important.
Many Iraqi Police officers will not let me take their pictures. They’re terrified insurgents will find them and target them and their families. Others act like local kids I met every day on the street who all but demand I make them famous.
Al Farris looks nothing like any other town in Iraq, at least on the outside. I was hoping to join the MPs on a patrol and possibly see the inside of someone’s apartment on one of their routine intelligence gathering missions, but that was not on the schedule. They did have a patrol lined up, but it was in the next town over, in Amariyah.
So I joined Sergeant Guerrero and his men on a quick five-minute ride to the Amariyah station. A blown up Mitsubishi truck was “parked” out front.
“It was a VBIED,” he said. A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, or — in regular English — a car bomb. “It was just a few weeks ago. There were four passengers. One was killed.”
“Only one?” I said. “Why pack four people into a car bomb?” I said.
“They didn’t know it was a car bomb,” he said. “It blew up at the checkpoint near the arches. We’re trying to figure out who planted it. We have had more than one insurgent deliberately ride along in a suicide VBIED, though.”
“Isn’t that a waste of a suicide bomber?” I said.
“They aren’t very pragmatic,” he said. “The way they see it, they all get their 72 virgins either way. It’s more about the 72 virgins than actually winning the war.”
Sergeant Timothy Kimball told me the blown up Mitsubishi was most likely an assassination.
“Who was it?” I said. “Someone important?”
“Who knows?” he said. “You’ll get assassinated for making a sandwich around here.”
We stepped into the Iraqi Police station chief’s office. The lights were out and the curtains were drawn. Three Iraqi Police officers smoked cigarettes on a couch under an English language “No Smoking” sign. A mysterious old man in a red keffiyeh kept to himself in the corner. I suspected he was a tribal leader. He obviously was not a police officer.
“Is it okay if we go on a patrol with your men?” Sergeant Guerrero said to the chief.
“Of course,” the chief said.
The mysterious man in the corner watched us with intelligent and calculating eyes. He did not inhale from his cigarette while we were present.
We left the station with a unit of Iraqi Police officers, and we walked the streets of Amariyah on foot.
“We’re trying to get them away from Saddam’s ways,” Sergeant Kimball said. “They’re leaps and bounds better than they were. Their hearts are in the right place. They do not like Al Qaeda. It’s like an Iraqi Mayberry here.”
The nearby city of Fallujah has been walled off from the rest of Iraq with Jersey barriers, checkpoints, and high-tech surveillance cameras. No one who doesn’t have a resident sticker on the windshield of their car is allowed to drive in. Visitors must park outside the city limits and walk. Sneaking in undetected is no longer possible.
What about Amariyah?
“So,” I said to Sergeant Guerrero as we walked. “What if I tried to just drive in here in a Jordanian rental car? Would the Iraqi Police let me in?”
“Hmm,” he said. “I don’t think they’d know what to do with you. I wouldn’t know what to do with you. You’d probably be detained at every checkpoint in the province until they figured that out. I don’t recommend trying.”
I had no intention of trying. I was just trying to figure out what was allowed.
As we approached the main market area, a conservatively dressed woman said “salam aleikum,” peace be upon you, to Sergeant Guerrero.
“Wow,” he said and turned his head as she passed. “That’s the first time a woman has ever spoken to us out here.”
“It’s no big deal in Fallujah,” I said. “Happens there all the time.”
“Here it never happens,” he said. “Until now.”
Fallujah is an extremely conservative city even by Arab standards. Amariyah is about as hard-core as it gets. Even so, the jihad has nearly been vanquished. If it can’t survive even here with American targets driving and walking around, it will be in serious trouble everywhere in the world, at least in the long run.
An Iraqi Police checkpoint was set up in the middle of a four-way intersection.
“Salam aleikum,” I said to the officer in charge.
Our interpreter was walking beside me.
“Can you ask the officer,” I said, “what we he would do if I pulled up to his checkpoint in a civilian car? I’m curious how closed this village is.”
The interpreter asked my question for me.
“I’d search your car,” the officer said. “And as long as I didn’t find anything suspicious, you would be welcome.”
“An IED exploded at this checkpoint three weeks ago,” Sergeant Kimball said as we walked on.
Open cities are dangerous in Iraq, and Amariyah is a lot less closed than Fallujah. IEDs and car bombs have exploded there so much more recently. Sergeant Kimball’s assertion that the village is an Iraqi Mayberry is slightly dubious. But only slightly, and I still take his point. Like most other places in Anbar Province, this village was ferociously violent a year ago. Reducing all that to intermittent single attacks is an accomplishment.
Our joint patrol swung into a residential neighborhood. A house-sized pile of rubble was all that remained on one corner.
“What’s the story here”? I said to Sergeant Guerrero.
“It was like that when we got here,” he said. “Apparently the guy living there was an Iraqi Police officer who joined the insurgency. He fired rockets at Iraqi Police from inside his house. So the Iraqi Police destroyed his house.”
Four kids up ahead sat on a low chain link fence. Sergeant Guerrero approached them. Our interpreter and an Iraqi Police officer followed.
“Are the Iraqi Police friendly?” the sergeant said to the kids.
“Of course they said yes,” our interpreter said. “An Iraqi Police officer is standing right next to you.”
“Tell him,” Sergeant Guerrero said, “that I want to talk to these kids in private.”
Our interpreter said something to the officer. The officer did not budge. We waited for a few moments and moved on.
“That was suspicious,” I said to Sergeant Guerrero and the interpreter.
“I think he did not understand,” our interpreter said.
Perhaps, but I wasn’t sure. Either way, Sergeant Guerrero did not press the point.
“Sometimes I’m surprised we can hold this country together against the insurgents,” an MP said when we returned to the station. “Then I work with these Iraqis and I understand. Competence isn’t a typical trait in this country.”
The small town of Saqlawiya is the most dangerous in the area. “That’s where you’ll want to go,” First Lieutenant Barry Edwards told me, “if you want to say you get shot at once a week.”
That isn’t the reason I decided to go, but I did travel there to join Major Allen Laughlin who went on a foot patrol so he could take the temperature of local public opinion.
A unit of Iraqi Police officers went with us, as usual. Several masked their faces in the station before stepping outside.
“I tell them they shouldn’t do that,” Sergeant Gentry said. (I did not catch his first name.) “I tell them they should be proud of being Iraqi Police and not hide behind a mask. If they’re afraid of the people, the people will be afraid of them.”
Major Laughlin wasn’t afraid of the people. The whole point of his going on patrol was so he could meet them.
On our way out of the station we walked through a maze of concrete walls, hesco barriers, and razor wire. This place was much more heavily fortified than stations in Fallujah. There is no way an insurgent could get himself inside the compound without being shot. Leaving such a place on foot felt a bit dicier than walking outside the far less barricaded Fallujah security stations. Crossing beyond that kind of security heightened my sense of vulnerability.
But only a little. Saqlawiya looked and felt exactly like Fallujah, only it was much smaller. Most cities and towns in Iraq look the same. Many neighborhoods in Kirkuk are built largely of cinder blocks, which is unusual. Dokuk has its mountainous backdrop and some colorful buildings. Al Farris’s weird Arabic-socialist layout sets it far apart from everything else. But otherwise every place I’ve been in that country looks almost the same — and that includes the Kurdish cities of Erbil and Suleimaniya, as well as Baghdad and Ramadi.
Major Laughlin stopped a man on the street and asked some basic questions.
Major Allen Laughlin
“What do you think of the Iraqi Police?” he said.
“Good Iraqi Police,” the man said. “No insurgents.”
“Would you say the same thing to me if the Iraqi Police weren’t out here with us?” the major said.
“Yes,” the man said. “They took care of the Ali Babas.”
The real question — one that unfortunately could not be answered — is whether or not the man would say the same thing if an American Marine officer were not standing there. That’s what Military Intelligence agents are for. They have methods that are much more reliable than walking around and asking strangers casual questions while carrying rifles.
“If you could have us fix one thing,” Major Laughlin said, “what would it be?”
I see no reason to doubt an honest answer to that one.
“Water and sewage,” the man said. “Basic things.”
“Thank you, sir,” the major said, “for your time.”
And we walked on.
Most of Anbar Province is Sunni, but Saqlawiya is split between Sunnis and Shias. There is no sectarian violence in Saqlawiya right now.
“Do you trust the police,” Major Laughlin said to an elder man who ran a vegetable stand.
“We are all from the same tribe,” the man said.
This is important. Iraqis identify with family, tribe, sect, and nation — in that order. Racial differences between Arabs and Kurds preceded sectarian differences under the regime of Saddam Hussein, but this appears to have cooled somewhat lately. Racist Arab Nationalism in Iraq is not what it was.
Iraqis have a hard time tolerating authority figures from other tribes and — especially — other races and sects. But when the local authorities belong to same tribe, ancient social arrangements don’t clash with modern local political structures. The Americans did not understand this when they first arrived in Iraq, and that, to put it mildly, was not helpful
“Do you feel safe?” Major Laughlin said to a man minding a small store.
“Yes,” the man said.
“Were you or your family hurt by insurgents?”
“No,” the man said. “but we did not feel safe until recently.”
“Do you trust the police?” the major said. This time no Iraqi Police officers were nearby. The man could speak freely. At least he only had to worry about what a Marine officer might think, rather than what the Iraqi Police might think.
“Yes,” he said.
I’m not convinced this is particularly useful information. Security in Saqlawiya is vastly improved, and local politics are much more stable. That matters tremendously, more than anything else. But it’s still theoretically possible that every Iraqi the major had spoken to so far was only saying what he thought the Americans wanted to hear. Marines do not punish Iraqi civilians if they’re disgruntled, but it’s hard to say how many local people truly believe that. Besides, Arabs are polite and hospitable people. Some will say kind things about Marines and Iraqi Police officers because they don’t want to be rude. It is sometimes difficult to discern honest opinion from perfunctory boilerplate, at least with strangers.
We rounded a corner past the main market area and came across a brand-new “supermarket” that had opened shortly after the insurgency was crushed.
An Iraqi “supermarket” is hardly a Safeway, let alone a Whole Foods. It’s more like an expanded 7-11 with more rice and fewer hot dogs and Twinkies. These stores are rare. Most Iraqis get their meat from a butcher, their bread from a bakery, and their fruits and vegetables from an outdoor stand.
What struck me about the sign on that store, and on many other stores in Iraq, was the English word “supermarket.” The only people in Saqlawiya who find English helpful are the Marines. And me.
I’ve seen this far beyond Iraq. Even in small towns in Libya — one of the most closed societies in the world — I found store signs in English. The amount of English in a genuinely cosmopolitan city like Beirut is even more striking, though no longer surprising. Beirut, at least, has a huge tourist industry. Imagine how differently you would think about Arabic civilization if small towns in Kansas and Nebraska — not to mention large cities like New York and Chicago — had storefront signs in the Arabic language even though no Arabs live there. Perhaps the word “imperialism” wouldn’t seem so much like a stretch. Of course no one forces Iraqis or Libyans to put English words on their signs, so it’s telling that they do so anyway, and that they did not choose Chinese or Russian.
Iraqi Police officers had set up road blocks to keep cars away from the patrol, and traffic was backing up in a long line. The street smelled of urine, dust, and exhaust.
Civilians aren’t allowed to drive where Americans and Iraqis are on foot patrols because potential suicide car-bombers have to be kept away. That did not stop us from walking through stopped traffic. No car-bomber would know in advance that he would need to be stopped in that particular line of traffic at that exact moment in order to blow us all up. Patrol times and routes vary and are never advertised in advance. The odds that a car bomber just happened to be there at that moment were minuscule and not really worth worrying about — especially now that there is no more than one violent incident in the city per week.
I noticed something after a while, though.
“Kids aren’t running up to us in this town,” I said to Major Laughlin. Everywhere else I’ve been in Iraq — including Baghdad — kids mob us on the street, ask American troops for candy, and demand I take their picture. But not in Saqlawiya. “What’s that about?” I said. “They’re impossible to shake off in Fallujah.”
“Good question,” Major Laughlin said.
He did not know the answer, and apparently hadn’t even thought of the question. This was one of those times where my experience in different parts of Iraq was perhaps more valuable than a Marine officer’s deeper and more prolonged experience in a single location.
Be wary of any “expert” who says they know what’s going on everywhere in Iraq. It’s impossible to have both a general and a granular understanding of that country in real time. You can know one area well, or you can know several areas superficially, but you cannot have an intimate understanding of the entire country while it’s in upheaval and flux. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been there or how how many articles and languages you read.
Our last stop before returning to the station was a carpet shop. I didn’t see any hand-made carpets of the kind you’ll find in tourist bazaars in Istanbul and Cairo. These were all machine-made carpets for local consumption in a weak economy.
The man who owned the place was different from all the other Iraqis in Saqlawiya Major Laughlin had briefly spoken to. All were friendly and seemed supportive, but this man’s friendliness and support was obviously sincere. Human emotions and body language are largely the same across cultures and time, and I can sometimes tell when someone is faking it or when they clearly are not. He wasn’t just being nice or saying what was expected due to a misplaced fear of reprisals. He positively beamed when he saw us approaching, like he was a kid on Christmas morning.
“Hello, my friends,” he said and put his hand on his heart.
I assumed he and the major were friends. American military officers have forged tight friendships with people all over Iraq, but it was clear from their conversation that they had not met before.
“Is this a new store?” Major Laughlin said.
“Yes,” the man said. “I just moved here a few weeks ago. From Baghdad.”
“Why did you move?” the major said.
The question had to be asked, but the answer could not have been more predictable.
“Terrorism,” he said. “It is much safer here. And it’s hard to move around over there. So many walls. Here it is more open. Would you like a drink?”
“Thanks, but no,” Major Laughlin said. It wasn’t the right thing to say.
“We are Arabs!” the man said. “We have to offer you drinks.”
Middle Easterners (Arabs and non-Arabs alike) are often offended if you say no to their offers of hospitality.
The man fished some dinars out of his pocket and sent his son across the street to buy cans of soft drinks from the store. He refused to accept Major Laughlin’s answer of no.
When the young man returned, he handed me a can of orange soda, a 7-UP to Major Laughlin, and a Pepsi to our interpreter Fadi.
Fadi is a Jordanian Arab who was born in Kuwait and raised in Pennsylvania. He speaks English without an accent and is as culturally American as I am. He is also a citizen. The Marines call him Fadi-Cakes.
“Do you trust the police?” Major Laughlin said to the carpet store owner.
“Of course,” the man said. “That’s why I moved here. The whole neighborhood is cooperative.”
“Have you met the police chief?” the major said.
“No,” the man said.
“How about the mayor?”
“No,” the man said. “I don’t even know who he is.”
“The mayor is new,” Fadi said to me by way of explaining.
“Well,” Major Laughlin said. “We’ll work together and make things better around here.”
“With large hearts,” the store owner said, “we welcome you.”
Back at the station I leaned against a Humvee while waiting for my ride back to Fallujah. Several Marines sat on the hood and joked with each other. A medevac helicopter flew overhead and I noted it in my notebook. I write down just about everything even if it does not seem important.
“Day Three,” a Marine said when he saw me scribbling. “I saw a helicopter.”
Everyone laughed, including me. They are all just as amazed as anyone else that Fallujah and the surrounding areas are mostly free of violence these days. Some seemed to take pity on me that there were no explosions to write about.
I spent the night at the Amariyah station where American Military Police officers live and work. They were recruited from the Texas National Guard and serve now in the regular Army. The station is outside of town, in the desert away from the lights and the noise. The electrical generator failed after the sun went down and the entire area was plunged into darkness.
It was extraordinary. Never had I heard such loud silence in Iraq beyond the mountains of Kurdistan. Not until I was far away from the interminable roar of hundreds of generators did I realize just how loud really Iraq is most of the time. The soundtrack of Iraq isn’t bullets and bombs — imagine instead a dozen lawnmowers within a block of your house. You stop noticing after a few hours, though, until they fall silent. Sitting out in the desert with a failed generator it was as though I had gone suddenly deaf, or had been whisked away through a hole in the dimension to the Oregon wilderness.
“It’s beautiful,” I said to two MPs who stood outside on the patio and smoked cigarettes. “The stars. And the quiet.”
Sometimes Iraq looks and feels like a world unto itself. The quiet starry nightscape reminded me, in a way that’s hard to describe, that Iraq is on the same planet.
“Look at the night sky through this,” a soldier said as he handed me the night vision eyepiece he had unscrewed from his helmet.
I looked through it and up. The sky exploded with thousands of stars I had never seen against a blinding background of night vision green. None are visible with the naked eye, but they’re there all the time, even in daylight. Now I could see.
And I could hear.
Distant thumps from artillery cannons sounded like whispering thunder on the horizon.
“That’s Baghdad,” the soldier said when I asked where it came from.
I felt at peace in the Iraqi wilderness, as though I had slipped into a bath. But Iraq is still a nation at war, and the cannons kept firing. Somewhere, too far away for any of us to hear, outgoing shells crashed and ignited in ferocious explosions. Somebody probably died.
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