Michael Totten

The Liberation of Karmah, Part I

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KARMAH, IRAQ — Just beyond the outskirts of Fallujah lies the terror-wracked city of Karmah. While you may not have heard of this small city of 35,000 people, American soldiers and Marines who served in Anbar Province know it as a terrifying place of oppression, death, and destruction. “It was much worse than Fallujah” said more than a dozen Marines who were themselves based in Fallujah.
“Karmah was so important to the insurgency because we’ve got Baghdad right there,” Lieutenant Andrew Macak told me. “This is part of the periphery of Baghdad. At the same time, it is part of the periphery of Fallujah.”
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Karmah, Iraq
Lieutenant Macak is not a veteran of Karmah, but Sergeant Jason Howell is. He was deployed in the city from March through October in 2006. “People weren’t out in the streets,” he said. “They were very reserved. They were afraid to talk to us. They had the feeling that, especially in the smaller towns, they were constantly being watched. They were in real jeopardy if they interacted with coalition forces and, especially, the Iraqi Police.”
Lieutenant Macak arrived in Karmah in the middle of July 2007 when the city was still a war zone. “It was moving in the right direction, but it was still active,” he said. “2/5 [Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment], who we relieved, was part of the surge effort. Karmah was still a very dangerous place. The lollipop over here was a big deal.”
“You mean the traffic circle?” I said. The Marines refer to a large traffic circle down the street from the police station at the entrance to the market as the “lollipop.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It was basically IED Alley. The whole road out here in front of the station was just covered in IEDs. No one even went down the roads leading to the north of here. It was an insurgent stronghold. Before 2/5 came in there weren’t many patrols. They didn’t do a whole lot. The Iraqi Police didn’t have any confidence. Their numbers weren’t big and there wasn’t a whole lot of organization. 2/5 came in and started patrolling, started doing what Marines do. They identified local leaders and started engaging them. Sheikh Mishan came back at about the same time from Syria.”
Sheikh Mishan Abbas, like many other sheikhs in Anbar Province, fled to Syria shortly after the U.S. invaded. He heads up the Jamaeli tribe, the largest in the area.
“Did he switch sides?” I said.
“Nah,” Lieutenant Macak said. “He’s never switched sides. You mean did he work for the enemy? No, he never did that. He took off to Syria because he didn’t want to get killed and he didn’t want to be pressured into supporting Al Qaeda. He’s basically the ‘sheikh of sheikhs.’ He’s been known as the sheikh of sheikhs since the British were here in the 1920s.”
Fallujah was a minefield of IEDs, but Karmah was even worse.
“They hit a lot of IEDs out there,” he said. “One of the route clearance teams was reacting to one and got hit by a secondary. It took their Cougar, spun it over, and threw it so high in the air it flipped over the power lines before coming back down. Fortunately the men weren’t hurt. The vehicle remained intact. The armor protected the Marines inside like it was supposed to. This was in the first week of September.”
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Corporal Caleb Hayes wanted to know who I was. He wasn’t expecting to see a journalist. Reporters hardly ever visit Karmah, which is the reason you probably have never heard of it.
“I personally was hit with seven IEDs in the traffic circle alone,” he said. “It didn’t start quieting down until September.”
“Why did it take longer in Karmah than in the rest of the province?” I said.
“It was easier in Fallujah because that city has a hard perimeter,” he said. “There is no definite edge to defend in Karmah. Insurgents just kept coming in. They were pushed into Karmah by surge forces in Baghdad. We always knew we would be shot at when we rolled out of the station in Karmah.”
Anbar Province — which also includes the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, and Haditha — is the heartland of Sunni Iraq. These places were the backbone of the Baath Party during the regime of Saddam Hussein. I was surprised, then, to hear so little about Baathists. What happened? Are they just gone?
“Here?” Lieutenant Macak said. “The primary threat was Al Qaeda. After the initial invasion Karmah wasn’t exactly an afterthought, but it isn’t the primary population center. The Marines went in and occupied Fallujah, and progressively moved out from that core.”
He is describing the oil spot counterinsurgency strategy, though he did not use that phrase. Andrew Krepinevich advocated this very thing in Foreign Affairs in 2005. “U.S. and Iraqi forces should adopt an ‘oil-spot strategy’ in Iraq,” “he wrote”:http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20050901faessay84508/andrew-f-krepinevich-jr/how-to-win-in-iraq.html. “Rather than focusing on killing insurgents, they should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people, thereby denying insurgents the popular support they need. Since the U.S. and Iraqi armies cannot guarantee security to all of Iraq simultaneously, they should start by focusing on certain key areas and then, over time, broadening the effort — hence the image of an expanding oil spot. Such a strategy would have a good chance of success.”
“I call it the snowball effect,” Lieutenant Macak said. “Anyway, there was a gap here that wasn’t well covered at first. So Al Qaeda came in and started their murder and intimidation campaign. I don’t know how many people liked Al Qaeda or fully supported them. Some people probably did. But other people didn’t have their own AK-47s, armor, or tanks or anything, so they had no choice but to submit to them. Otherwise they would end up like their family members with their heads chopped off. If you didn’t support Al Qaeda they would blow up your house.”
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Al Qaeda in Iraq waged a vicious murder and intimidation campaign all across Anbar Province as though they were an army of arsonists and serial killers.
“In June when Sheikh Mishan came back,” the lieutenant said, “and this was after two years of Al Qaeda forcing their will on the population — within one week of Sheikh Mishan coming back, three of his family members’ houses were blown up. And a fourth family member’s house was blown up while Al Qaeda kept the family members inside.”
Today Karmah is no more violent than Fallujah — which is to say, hardly violent at all.
“A lot has changed since just before we arrived,” Lieutenant Macak said. “I arrived in July just when the checkpoints were starting up. We expanded what 2/5 started. We took that snowball and made it bigger. As soon as they put that checkpoint up near the lollipop, the IEDs on IED Alley disappeared.
“That’s all it took?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “But within a couple of weeks of them putting the checkpoint up, they had a suicide car bomb attack. They assumed that no one would want to be out manning that checkpoint if it was just going to get blown up again. So the Marines went out there and fortified it. They maintained a squad-sized Marine element out there for about a month and a half. The Iraqi Police and Provincial Security Forces were out there manning it, as well. We slowly phased the Marines out of it, and now it’s exclusively run by Iraqis. No one would ever go past that point. They had kill lines set up. If they saw any vehicle coming down that road, it would be engaged. They knew anything past that line was Al Qaeda. No vehicles were allowed to move from the east to the west toward that checkpoint.”
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Heavy fortification in Karmah
Implementing basic security measures wouldn’t work in a counterinsurgency if a significant number of local civilians supported the radicals. But the locals were terrified and savagely murdered and tortured by the radicals on a regular basis. Al Qaeda in Iraq is the self-declared enemy of every human being outside its own members and loyal supporters. Nothing could possibly discredit jihad more completely than the jihadists themselves.
“Insurgent activity was a lot worse,” Sergeant Howell said. “Attacks with small arms fire were constant. IEDs were daily. The difference between this place now and when I first got here is day and night. There was no way kids would be playing soccer in the streets. When we patrolled last time we had a much more aggressive posture. It was a combat patrol.”
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I’m accustomed to being in Iraq during the new normal. Sergeant Howell reminded me that it is indeed new in this town, as did so many others.
“Some civilians supported the insurgents,” I said to Lieutenant Macak. “Could you tell them apart from those who were intimidated?”
“No,” he said. “They were all really reserved. They stayed in their houses. But now they’re everywhere. They come up to us and greet us, talk to us. The women aren’t so scared and so guarded. Last year you would never see a woman outside the house. Now everybody is in the streets. Kids are playing, people are walking around. People are starting to live like it’s a somewhat normal environment. You can tell just by looking that the environment is a lot safer than it was last year.”
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Very few insurgents remain in the city. The remnants are thought to be exclusively locals. The Marines believe the foreign leadership cadre has been driven out.
“I had a good conversation with Iraqi Police Lieutenant Colonel Sattar about this last night,” Lieutenant Macak said. “I said Why are your family members the ones kidnapping you, beating you up, and killing your people?”
“It was his family members?” I said.
“Lieutenant Colonel Sattar was captured and held by Al Qaeda for over a year,” he said. “He was beaten and thrashed before they eventually let him go. And the guy who captured him was his cousin. The culture here — they lie, they deceive, they steal, they don’t trust each other. In order to survive. That’s what Saddam Hussein’s era bred in them. If they wanted to survive and do well, they had to go behind everyone’s back. After 20 or 30 years of Saddam, they can’t break away over night.”
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A crucial aspect of General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy is an alliance with local authorities as well as civilians. The Army desperately needed to transform itself from a bureaucratic occupation force to a locally integrated security force, but it’s the kind of thing Marines do instinctively when they arrive from abroad in a war zone.
“A lot of the security efforts are locally driven,” Lieutenant Macak said. “The Iraqi Security Forces [which includes the Iraqi Police, Iraqi Army, Provincial Security Forces, and the Iraqi Civilian Watch] go out there and find weapons caches. They dig up IEDs from the road even though we tell them not to. They go capture bad guys and bring them right to our doorstep. They’re not looking for any kind of reward, they just want to do a good job.”
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The counterinsurgency doctrines of the Army and Marine Corps are more similar now than they were. Sergeant Joseph Perusich told me how the Marines acquire local intelligence, but “I had already seen the Army use the same tactics in Baghdad”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/001506.html.
“Last time I was out here,” Sergeant Perusich said, “everything was real kinetic. It has calmed down a lot. We don’t go around kicking in doors and throwing in flashbangs anymore. We used to to that a lot, go and bust doors in and run everything over.”
“Now we’re more like FBI agents,” Lieutenant Macak said.
“It helps if you ask the neighbors,” Sergeant Perusich said. “Everybody is really close. So if you ask somebody next door about someone and they say something different, it helps us in our tactical questioning.”
“How cooperative are locals when you ask about other people?” I said.
“Very cooperative,” Sergeant Perusich said.
“Well, define cooperative,” Lieutenant Macak said.
“You mean as far as them not letting us in the house?” Sergeant Perusich said.
“I mean,” I said, “how much information can you actually get out of the neighbors?”
“They aren’t going to just throw all the information out there until they feel comfortable,” Sergeant Perusich said. “If you bust in the house and knock everything over, they’re going to be afraid of you. It all depends on how you conduct yourself. If you talk to them normally, they’ll eventually open up.”
“They have to feel safe,” Lieutenant Macak said. “They don’t want to say something and get themselves hurt. Sometimes they’ll say yeah, go arrest that guy over there, he’s an insurgent and no one has said anything about it. But you have to develop a relationship.”
“What is it that you get out of building a relationship?” I said. “Is it that they trust that you won’t hurt them, or that they trust you’ll protect them from the insurgents?”
“Both,” Sergeant Perusich said. “We have to convince them that we’re here to protect them and their family. But we also have to convince them that we’re not just blowing smoke. They need to know we aren’t here to take anything, steal anything. We’re here to find out who the bad guys are so it’s safe here for us and their families.”
“I think a lot of it is that if they’re going to say something, they want you to do something about it,” Lieutenant Macak said. “If they don’t have the confidence that you’re going to act on something, they’re not going to put themselves at risk. Counterinsurgency is a broad term. If you go out there, get intelligence, and you don’t act on it, you are not going to earn the trust of the people. It works partly because of the efforts of the previous units here, but also because they lived under the murder and intimidation of Al Qaeda for so long.”
Sergeant Perusich had seen fighting in Karmah before, and also in southern Iraq. He fought Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in Najaf and told me the exact same dynamic works there as well as it does in Anbar.
*
American troops are not only given medals and recognition for killing the enemy and saving each other’s lives. They are also given medals and recognition for saving Iraqi lives.
Just around the corner from IED Alley, at the main station in town, four Marines — including Sergeant Perusich — were given the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for saving Iraqis who were wounded by an insurgent-laid IED on November 7, 2007.
The first man recognized was Hospitalman Joshua L. Flagg who works as a medic.
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Hospitalman Joshua L. Flagg and Captain Quintin Jones
“While conducting a security patrol in Al Anbar Province,” his senior officer said to all in attendance, “Hospitalman Flagg responded to an improvised explosive device strike that caused severe casualties. Upon arrival at the site, Hospitalman Flagg immediately set up a triage site and began prioritizing patients according to their injuries. He identified deteriorating conditions in two of the patients. Hospitalman Flagg was able to stabilize them both with intravenous fluids and pressure dressings in preparation for an air evacuation. Hospitalman Flagg’s ability to perform under pressure, confidence, and knowledge of medical procedures were the key factors in the stabilization of casualties and the saving of two Iraqi nationals’ lives.”
The lives of two others also were saved. Lance Corporal Joshua S. Varney, Sergeant Joseph M. Perusich, and Lance Corporal Jonathan L. Arden also were awarded and recognized.
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Lance Corporal Joshua S. Varney and Captain Quintin Jones
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Sergeant Joseph M. Perusich and Captain Quintin Jones
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Lance Corporal Johnathan L. Arden and Captain Quintin Jones
“At ease,” Captain Quintin Jones said after each man was given his medal. “This is exactly the type of thing you need to be doing for our Iraqi brethren when they are in need. You couldn’t save four of them, but you did save four others.”
On the same day just a few blocks away, local Iraqi leaders held a ceremony where they officially re-opened the market on the main street. Until very recently, almost every business in Karmah was closed. For years they had no security, no economy, and no city utilities. All now are recovering.
Every Iraqi leader in the city showed up, as did hundreds of civilians, Iraqi Police officers, and Iraqi Army soldiers. The Marines were there, too, providing security. Americans did not, however, have anything to do with organizing or sponsoring the event. “We’re just here in the background,” Captain Jones told me.
They wouldn’t remain in the background, however, if they were attacked. The Marines were ordered to place themselves as up-armored human shields around Sheikh Mishan.
“If shots are fired,” an officer said to his men, “collapse around the sheikh.”
Because the ceremony was so close to the station, we walked. I walked with Captain Jones and spoke to him on the way. Lieutenant Macak, the captain’s executive officer (XO), joined us.
“We’re having a grand re-opening for Karmah,” Captain Jones said. “We’re trying to start the governance process and the economic process. A lot of this stuff has been closed for a year or two due to the insurgency coming back in. They kept targeting the Iraqi Police station and blowing it up. Every time they brought in a car bomb, things shut down. They used a lot of these buildings to shoot at the Iraqi Police station.”
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“We brought relative security to the region,” he continued. “We’re trying to re-do these buildings here. A lot of these buildings were shot up. You can see some bullet holes in some of these doors. These buildings were all shot to hell.”
Just around the corner was the traffic circle.
“This is the entrance to the market?” I said.
“It is,” he said. “This is the gateway to Karmah.”
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“As Captain Jones explained, we’re in the background,” Lieutenant Macak said. “We’ve been supporting them, but they have an Iraqi face on everything. They set the conditions and do the legwork. We allow them to take the credit for it, basically, which is a lot of what counterinsurgency is. We provide them the legs to let them stand up and do it themselves.”
The ceremony was held at the so-called “lollipop.”
“This was IED Alley, right here,” Lieutenant Macak said as we arrived. “But not any more because of the efforts of coalition forces, the Iraqi Police, the Provincial Security Forces, the Iraqi Civilian Watch, and the sheikhs. For two or three years now we’ve been saying them, hey, if you’re tired of Al Qaeda, stand up and get rid of them. And they’re actually doing that now. The Iraqi Police now call IED Alley their Victory Circle. It’s a physical representation of what they have accomplished.”
Hundreds of chairs were set up in front of a stage that had been erected on the circle itself. Local sheikhs, city officials, and business leaders sat beneath an awning in case of rain. They drank water poured into tall glasses from bottles. Regular citizens and mid-level leaders sat in plastic chairs exposed to the elements, but there was no rain.
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The community leaders dressed sharply, some in traditional Arab dress and others with Western coats and ties. Iraqi Police officers, Iraqi Army soldiers, and plainclothes Neighborhood Watch guys milled about. All carried AK-47s and pistols. Brand new Iraqi flags snapped in the wind.
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A live band took the stage and belted out powerful Iraqi folk music indigenous to the province. A group of armed Iraqi men danced to the music in a circle. Some brandished rifles and knives. The passion and intensity of the music was startling.
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Twenty or so minutes later, Sheikh Mishan stood at the podium and addressed the people of Karmah in poetic, perfectly pronounced, thunderous Arabic. His speech celebrating the end of the insurgency and the awakening of the city of Karmah would knock you back on your heels even if you could not understand one single word. The man was an obvious leader, and he packed a punch.
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Everyone listened intently. No one applauded. This was a serious affair, not a party. The Marines kept their heads on swivels. This would be the perfect time for any Al Qaeda remnants to execute a devastating act of mass casualty terrorism.
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An Arabic-speaking journalist interviews Sheikh Mishan Abbas
Mayor Abu Abdullah took the podium as Sheikh Mishan stood down.
“Everything I do, I do with him,” Captain Jones whispered to me.
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Captin Quintin Jones and Mayor Abu Abdullah
After the ceremony I joined Navy Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll and Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Summers on a tour of the market.
“Sorry about the dog and pony show,” Lieutenant Macak said to me quietly. “Later we’ll get you out on the streets for real.”
The tour of the market did feel a bit like a dog and pony show, but the re-opened business district is real. Karmah isn’t a fake potemkin city erected by the Marines to impress visitors. Iraqi shopkeepers and their customers aren’t actors hired by the CIA.
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I was a little bit bored. I’ve walked so many re-opened business districts in Iraq that I won’t be impressed again until I see a Starbucks, night clubs, or bohemian hangouts. Beirut is full of such places, but Iraq isn’t Lebanon. Admiral Driscoll and Commander Summers, though, were thunderstruck by the ordinariness of it all. They had never seen anything like it in this country. Admiral Driscoll works at Stratcom. Both he and Commander Summers are based in the Green Zone bubble in Baghdad, which is technically Iraq but so unlike everywhere else that seeing it hardly counts. Everyone who is marooned there knows that, or at least should.
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Read Admiral Patrick Driscoll (left) and Captain Quintin Jones (right)
“Can you believe this place?” Admiral Driscoll said to me. He sounded like a bit like a kid on Christmas morning. I felt weirdly like a jaded old man who had seen it all even though he is older and more accomplished. I understood then what some American soldiers and Marines mean when they say the top brass lives and works at “echelons above reality.” I’m not blaming the admiral. His job requires him to be isolated from nuts, bolts, and the street most of the time.
The market looked ordinary enough to me, but the top officers weren’t alone in their amazement. I had to remind myself of the ceremony I had just seen. The market was just now re-opening. The opening ceremony had concluded less than an hour before. Karmah recovered later than other cities in this part of Iraq, after all. When I covered the awakening in Ramadi last summer, Karmah was still a hell of insurgent warfare, though I did not know it.
The locals were ecstatic. Dozens of cars and minivans packed with young Iraqi men brandishing rifles and flags roared down the street. They honked horns, cheered as though they had just won a soccer game, and waved in thanks to the Marines and Iraqi Police. Others paraded on foot.
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The market area improved as we kept walking. The lower portion of the street was made up of simple places like generator repair workshops, butcher shops, and simple vegetable stands. The upper half of the neighborhood was a bit more upscale. A larger number of buildings had been refurbished. Clothing, cell phones, big screen TVs, and refrigerators all were for sale. This portion of the market was actually bustling for Iraq.
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Children ran up to me and the Marines, as they always do.
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“This is a real education,” Commander Summers said. “There are no kids in the Green Zone.”
“We couldn’t have done this a few months ago,” one Marine said to Commander Summers.
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Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Summers poses with an Iraqi boy who borrowed his helmet
The Middle East beyond Israel strikingly lacks anything resembling political correctness. I hear much more severe denunciations of radical Islam there than I do in the U.S., and I don’t mean from Americans. I hear it from Arabs, and from Persians and Kurds. I hear it in Lebanon all the time, and in Iraq too.
Sabah Danou walked with Commander Summers and Admiral Driscoll. He’s an Iraqi who works for the multinational forces as a cultural and political advisor in Baghdad. “Look,” he said to me and gestured toward a local man with a long beard and a short dishdasha that left his ankles exposed. “He’s a Wahhabi,” Danou hissed. “He is linked to Al Qaeda. That’s their uniform, you know, that beard and that high-cut dishdasha. God, what pieces of shit those fuckers are.”
I never hear soldiers and Marines talk about Iraqis like that, but no one objected to what Sabah Danou said.
To be continued…
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