Michael Totten

The Liberation of Karmah, Part II

This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part I here.
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KARMAH, IRAQ — The small city of Karmah sits between Fallujah and Baghdad, two Iraqi cities that have suffered more insurgent and terrorist violence than most. Karmah, however, was more hard-hit than either. It’s right on the bleeding edge of Anbar Province where the outskirts of Baghdad taper away. Unlike Fallujah, it has no hard perimeter to defend, nor was it considered a top priority for counterinsurgency operations. Surge forces in Baghdad drove Al Qaeda in Iraq members out of the capital’s neighborhoods and straight into Karmah during most of 2007.
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Al Qaeda in Iraq did in Karmah what they have done everywhere else — intimidated and murdered civilians into submission. They decapitated police officers and placed severed heads all over the city. They destroyed the homes of anyone who opposed them. The message was clear: This is what will happen to you if you work with the Americans.
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The story in Karmah should be familiar by now. Iraqis said no. We will work with the Americans and drive you out of our country. So many Stateside Americans still wonder aloud why mainstream Muslims refuse to stand up to terrorists, so apparently the story in Karmah — which is hardly unique to Karmah — isn’t familiar enough.
I joined Lieutenant Casey Alleman on a foot patrol in the city at dawn when the air was still cold and the sun cast long shadows.
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Fewer Iraqis were out on the street. Many were still sleeping or cooking breakfast at home.
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Most stores were open, though, and the lieutenant ducked into a hardware store and bought several cans of blue spray paint. I didn’t ask what they were for because I assumed I’d find out.
Even this city, of all cities, has gone quiet. Saturation patrolling by Marines who live embedded in the community’s neighborhoods stanched the terrorist outflow from Baghdad and purged the local insurgency’s remnants. The main market area downtown was recently re-opened to much ceremony and fanfare. Marine veterans who had served in Karmah before can hardly believe their own eyes — a year ago Karmah was thought to be as dark as Mordor.
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Our first official stop of the morning was at a grade school. Children rushed to the windows to smile and wave as we walked up the steps.
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A young boy came running out the front door with tears in his eyes and a bruise on his eyebrow. A soft-faced teacher or administrator in his forties stepped outside to make sure the kid didn’t run off too far. “He was in a fight,” he said and opened his palms.
Lieutenant Alleman called out to his unit’s medic. “See if you can clean this kid up,” he said. Our medic cleaned the boy’s wound and gently applied a band-aid.
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I stepped inside the school yard. Hundreds of children saw me and the Marines, and the whole place erupted in screams of excitement. It was as if Britney Spears or the guy from Coldplay had shown up. The volume was just extraordinary and I took a few steps back in surprise.
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Wildly screaming children jockeyed for position in front of my camera. After a few minutes of pandemonium, teachers coaxed most of the kids into classrooms and left a few behind to pick up the trash and sweep the sidewalk around the courtyard.
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“Are they picking up the trash to impress us?” I said to Lieutenant Alleman. It’s hard to say why, exactly, but that’s what it looked like.
“Yeah, pretty much,” he said. “We can get them to do it, but what we really need to do is get them to do it when we aren’t here.”
The schools are gender segregated by days of the week. One day each school is for boys, and the next day the same school is for girls.
A few months ago the schools were opened again for the first time in years. Much hay was made about girls being allowed to return to school in Afghanistan after the Taliban regime was demolished. Hardly any Americans know that in the rougher cities of Iraq, neither girls nor boys could go to school for years because local rule by Al Qaeda was so oppressive and violent.
“People just stared at us as recently as August,” Lieutenant Alleman said. “They wouldn’t, or couldn’t, engage us. But when we started painting buildings and stuff like that people realized we were trying to help. None of the schools were open when we got here [last summer]. We helped them open up five. It’s hard to hate someone who gives your kid candy and helps him get to school.”
The lieutenant and I quickly popped into a classroom. The kids cheered the lieutenant again. I snapped a few pictures.
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Lieutenant Casey Alleman in an Iraqi boys’ classroom
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Their teacher asked them to remain seated. Most of them did, but a few couldn’t restrain themselves. We left in a hurry so we wouldn’t be too much of a distraction. Lieutenant Alleman had a brief meeting with the top administrator, and we were off.
The school kids were reluctant to clean up trash when Americans aren’t looking, but Karmah’s adults are more grown-up about it, as should be expected. “We started a cleanup program a few months ago,” the lieutenant said. “Now they’re doing it on their own. You see these white buildings? We paid for the paint, and the owners went to work.”
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A recently painted building
Then I knew why he picked up cans of blue paint on the way to the school.
We stopped by a shop and said hello to the man who owned it and his sons who helped run it.
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“We have the paint I promised you,” Lieutenant Alleman said. He then asked the man to close the garage-style door so his Marines could paint it blue. Brushed paint would have looked better than sprayed paint, but there wasn’t any available that day.
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As the Marines spray-painted the door, the Iraqis washed down a second door with a hose so the next round of paint would adhere better.
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Two young boys ran up to us. A Marine asked them how school was going.
“Fuck school,” one of them said. He said it in English. “Give me your knife. I want to kill my teacher.”
Iraqis exaggerate and think this sort of thing is funny. Last year in Ramadi I heard a kid ask an Army lieutenant to drive his Humvee over to the adjacent tribal area and kill everybody. He wasn’t serious. He laughed and thought it was funny. I did not find it funny, nor did the lieutenant. It’s especially not funny since this is Iraq where that kind of thing actually happens, though the violence is usually political or sectarian rather than tribal.
“Where did you learn English” I said.
“From my teacher,” the boy said.
“The teacher you want to kill?” I said. “He taught you English and you want to kill him?” Somebody needed to let this kid know this is no way to talk.
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“Mister,” his friend said. “America good. Iraq no good.”
“Iraq good,” I said, though I do not believe it. Iraq is in much better shape than it was a year ago, but it’s still a terrible and often disturbing place. I said “Iraq good” because I wanted to be polite. It didn’t feel right to insult his country to his face while I was a guest, even if I would be agreeing with what he had already said. I understand why Arabs sometimes say “America good” just to be nice. I don’t hold it against them or dismiss them as patently dishonest, not for this. I had just done essentially the same thing, and for a similar reason.
The kid knew I wasn’t sincere. Perfunctory going-through-the-motions politeness is detectable across cultures. I can often tell when I’m getting that from Iraqis. This kid knew the drill.
“Iraq no good,” he said again, this time with more force. He would not hear otherwise from me.
Middle Easterners will rarely let you into their homes without feeding you — and if they put food in front of you, you have to eat it.
Abu Jabar Azabi was no different. He greeted Lieutenant Alleman, the rest of the Marines, and me at the gate to his yard and sat us down on some benches he had put on the front lawn. Chickens ran around on the grass.
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“I don’t have food in the house,” he said. “My son and I will go to a restaurant and get some for you.” He did not get food for himself or his family. He only went and bought food for us.
Azabi lives in a new house because Al Qaeda destroyed his old one with a car bomb. He refused to let them use his house as a sniper nest, so they blew it up. He is lucky to be alive. It goes without saying that he’s no fan of the insurgency. A photograph on his living room wall shows him posing with a squad of Marines.
He had to sell his farm, and he needed a job. Lieutenant Alleman gave him a local garbage collection contract so he can make a living. He is paid 300 dollars a week, which is around four times the average salary in the area.
His home was quite pleasant, as are most homes I’ve been inside in Iraq. It’s strange. Most Iraqi cities look terrible from the street. Much of the country looks like a vast slum from the outside. Private spaces are different. Expensive carpets, personal computers, televisions, DVD players — all these things are fairly standard.
The Middle East is more communitarian than the West, but Iraq’s urban design appears to be anti-social. Most houses are surrounded by walls. It can be a bit jarring while walking the streets, but it’s comforting when you’re inside. Houses in Iraq are much more like “castles” than American houses, which comes in handy at times when terrorists and militiamen roam the streets.
After a half hour or so, Azabi came back with food. He and his son placed kabobs, vegetables, bread, and French fries in front of us and left us alone while we ate. None of us thought this was necessary, but Iraqis believe it is.
“He does good work for us,” Lieutenant Alleman said as he stuffed vegetables and grilled lamb into his bread. “At first he acted like he didn’t want to be paid. But before we hired him he told us he needed the money. It was very confusing. Then his son quietly asked us for the money when we were getting ready to leave. It’s a pride thing, I guess. This culture can be very confusing at first, but you get used to it.”
The Marines ate in shifts. Half sat at the table while the other half kept an eye on the neighborhood. More than half the food was gone for the second shift, but that was okay. When Private Jean sat down to eat, he didn’t want any.
“Eat, Jean,” Lieutenant Alleman said, “or you’ll undo five months of work.” Everyone laughed.
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Private Jean
“The whole table?” Private Jean said. He eyed the food with tremendous suspicion.
“No, Jean, just eat a damn piece of meat,” the lieutenant said.
“Do I have to?”
He settled on a French fry, which looked safer than meat. You don’t want to see or even think about the sanitary conditions in Iraq’s kitchens, but despite what I’ve seen I’ve never been sick from the food.
After the food was finished, Azabi joined us at the table. His sons, his wife, and his mother also came out to say hi. Many Iraqi women stay in the background even in their own homes, but not every Iraqi family is so conservative.
Lieutenant Alleman couldn’t have a proper meeting with Azabi, however, because we did not have an interpreter. Lance Corporal Crask was designated our unofficial interpreter because he spoke Arabic better than the rest of us. His accent sounded almost perfect to my ears, but he’s not fluent yet. Some topics had to be set aside for a later date.
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Abu Jabar Azabi (lower-left) and his family
“Azabi is the most accepting guy we’ve met,” Lieutenant Alleman said to me.
“Do you get intel from him?” I said. I assumed that’s what this really was all about.
“No,” the lieutenant said. “It might put him in danger. Occasionally we’ll ask if there are any Ali Babas around, and he’ll say no. But we are going about recruiting him as an agent in the textbook way. We just haven’t actually done it. It seems like there is always something he wants to tell us, but we haven’t yet figured out what it is.”
Iraq’s brief run of pleasant winter weather was ending. Dark clouds rolled down over Mesopotamia from the mountains of Kurdistan. The cold air and the dishrag gray sky made Karmah feel like London or Seattle before a storm. I brought a rain poncho along just in case — no way will I carry an umbrella around Iraq with Marines — and it looked like I was about to need it.
Sergeant Joseph Perusich brought me along on an evening patrol where he and his men wanted to investigate the “local atmospherics” and “deny enemy activity.”
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Sergeant Joseph Perusich
“How do you pronounce your name?” I said.
“Per-OO-sitch,” he said.
“Where is it from?” I said. I quietly guessed his name was from Russia.
“It’s Croatian,” he said. I was close. “My family is Croatian. Slavic. But it’s also a Serbian name. Most of the guys here just called me Sergeant P. It’s easier to pronounce and remember.”
We walked along a nasty-looking canal, away from the city center, toward the outskirts of town and Karmah’s undefined edge. The city fades by increments into the countryside and the outskirts of Baghdad.
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Our first stop was a blown-up former IED-maker’s house that I had asked to see.
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“It looked like this when we got here,” Sergeant Perusich said. “It was definitely a bad guy’s house.”
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“Look on the wall there,” he said. “You can see where he drew a Humvee being hit with an IED.”
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Across the street was another destroyed house. This one was blown up by Al Qaeda.
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“The Iraqi Police who work the checkpoint across the street used to live here,” he said. “Al Qaeda drove a truck bomb right into it.”
I believe the Marines who told me the fighting was worse in Karmah than in the more-famous nearby cities of Fallujah and Baghdad. It is noticeably more ramshackle and battle-scarred than the larger towns that get so much more media coverage.
The Iraqi Police who manned the nearby checkpoint moved into a new house just down the street. They weren’t about to let this one get taken out with a truck bomb. The driveway was blockaded with gigantic Hesco barriers, which are basically sofa-sized “sand bags” wrapped in cardboard and wire. Driving through those is impossible from a narrow and winding dirt road without a straight-shot “runway” leading up to the target. Garbage and rubble was strewn about in the yard. Windows were broken and sand-bagged.
Sergeant Perusich asked the officers on duty if they needed anything.
“We need ammo,” they said.
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The Iraqi Police always seem to need ammunition. They rarely pull the trigger anymore except when they shoot into the air, but they always complain of a shortage of bullets. If the Americans left now and the insurgents returned in force, the insurgents would win for this reason alone. No one can fight without bullets and a healthy supply line.
“We’ll get you some more ammo,” Sergeant Perusich said.
“Thank you,” said the ranking Iraqi officer. “Thank you, and all Marines.”
We continued down the dirt road, deeper into the ambiguously defined area between the suburbs and the countryside. We were still in Karmah or not? I couldn’t tell.
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“This road was terrible,” Sergeant Perusich said. “There were so many IEDs.”
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“It’s easier to hide IEDs under dirt roads,” he said. “Most of them were triggered by pressure plates, but some by command wire.” Command wire IEDs are more dangerous. They’re detonated manually by a trigger man, and can take out units on foot patrols as well as Marines mounted in Humvees.
An Iraqi man sat on the side of the road with his young son. “I love America!” he said.
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“I love America, too,” one Marine said sarcastically. I suppose he figured the Iraqi man wasn’t sincere. I couldn’t tell one way or the other. Some are sincere about this, and some aren’t.
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Someone painted “I Love You” in English on a Jersey barrier
Another checkpoint was set up just ahead. This was run by the Iraqi Civilian Watch. These guys look like a rag-tag militia or posse, but they aren’t. They have been deputized by the local authorities, though they’re paid less than police officers and have limited training and duties.
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Iraqi Civilian Watch checkpoint
Civilian watch groups did, however, start out as militias of sorts. They sprang up spontaneously all over the place when the awakening movement began. Al Qaeda’s reign of terror in Iraq was just too much to bear. Ordinary civilians decided they would rather stand up and face the insurgents with rifles than cower behind their own walls. There was no real authority in this part of Iraq at the time, but if Al Qaeda were the actual government, the “awakening” could be described as an insurrection or revolution.
“Do you guys need anything?” Sergeant Perusich said.
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Iraqi Civilian Watch
“Thank you, no,” the leader of the civilian watch said.
“Seen any suspicious people?”
“Not lately, no. Actually, though, we need more AK-47s.” Iraqis often say they don’t need anything before they say they need something. They want to be independent, but they aren’t there yet. They’re trying to have it both ways. “And we need more lights and generators. This place is dangerous.”
Sergeant Perusich took notes and said he would be sure they got what they needed.
The Marines picked a side road at random and walked down it toward a small cluster of houses. “Let’s check in on that one,” Sergeant Perusich said and pointed toward the house at the end of the street.
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“You mean we’re going in?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “But it’s not a raid. We’ll just check in and see if they have anything they want to tell us.”
A wild fox darted across the road right in front of me and scrambled into the reeds.
We reached the front door of the selected house and one of the Marines rapped on it hard. A nervous-looking man answered.
“Salam aleikum,” Sergeant Perusich said. Peace be upon you. “Tell him he’s not in trouble,” he said to our interpreter. “He can relax. We just want to come in and talk.”
A dozen pairs of shoes were placed just outside the front door. The Marines walked in with their boots on. So did I. We couldn’t go down to our socks — someone might shoot at us. I took as few steps as possible inside the house, not wanting to track around too much dust. Dark clouds outside threatened rain. Soon the Iraqis would worry about tracking mud into the house. Western Iraq is a sandbox, and the whole place is like a vast plain of chocolate pudding after a rain storm.
All the men and boys in the house were asked to move into a single room where they could be watched. The Marines weren’t paranoid, but you never know. The Iraqis understood and didn’t complain. They still looked a bit nervous, though.
“It’s okay,” Sergeant Perusich said. “Really, no one here is in trouble. We just want to make sure everything is okay and see if you need anything.”
“You are welcome,” said the man who answered the door.
The house was pleasant inside. Expensive Turkish carpets covered the floors, as did plush pillows. An enormous chandelier hung over the dining room table. A large plasma TV was set up the living room next to a personal computer with surround-sound speakers. Dainty tea glasses were carefully arranged in built-in cabinets.
“What did you think of the ceremony yesterday?” Sergeant Perusich said. The day before, Jamaeli tribe leader Sheikh Mishan Abbas held a ceremony downtown heralding the opening of the market after years of closure during the insurgency.
“It is good,” said the Iraqi. “Karmah is safe now.”
I smiled at the Iraqis and whispered salam, trying to get them to feel more at ease. It must be intimidating the first time American Marines — who look like robots of war with their gear on — show up unannounced at your house.
“Have you seen any suspicious people around?” Sergeant Perusich said.
“No,” the man said. “It has been quiet here for some time.”
It’s true. It has been quiet in the area for some time. There was no reason to doubt the truth of what the man said.
“Okay,” Sergeant Perusich said. “We’ll get out of your way. Thanks for your time.”
And that was that. It was hardly an intelligence gathering meeting. The purpose was to be seen, not only by the residents in the house, but by everyone else in the neighborhood. Those who feared the Americans would feel more afraid. Those who feared the insurgents would feel more at ease.
As we traced our steps back to the main road, the Iraqi Civilian Watch guys we had met earlier walked toward us.
“Our checkpoint is very important,” said the team’s leader.
“All the checkpoints are important,” Sergeant Perusich said.
“This was an insurgent area,” the man said.
“Everywhere was an insurgent area,” the sergeant said. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you guys what you need.”
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War damage on the outskirts of Karmah
We heard gun shots in the distance. I looked at Sergeant Perusich and wondered what he would say or do.
“It’s just the Iraqi Police,” he said and shrugged. “Shooting into the air.” I don’t know how he could know that, but I suppose it’s easy if you’ve been in a large enough number of fire fights.
We headed back toward the station, but took a different return path on narrow trails through the reeds. Small kittens darted around and looked for mice. They seemed healthy and well-fed, though they obviously were not pets.
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BOOM. Somewhere something exploded. It sounded like a short clap thunder without the roll.
“What was that?” I said.
“Controlled det, most likely,” Sergeant Perusich said. Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams detonate found IEDs and caches of weapons every day. Karmah is so secure now that even hyper-cautious Marine sergeants are sure there’s nothing to worry about when they hear gunshots and explosions. It’s not even a mop-up in Karmah anymore. It’s a clean-up. The war movie soundtrack in the background was just that — a soundtrack. Harmless or not, it was a constant reminder that we were not in Kansas.
The sun dropped below the horizon. Twilight outside the city was as dark as if we were in wilderness.
We came upon a man sweeping his porch with a straw broom.
“Salam Aleikum,” Sergeant Perusich said. “Have you seen any suspicious people around?”
“No,” the man said and gave us a sly crooked smile. “They all ran away.”
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