January 27, 2008

The Final Mission, Part I

Iraqi Police Covered Face Fallujah.jpg

FALLUJAH – At the end of 2006 there were 3,000 Marines in Fallujah. Despite what you might expect during a surge of troops to Iraq, that number has been reduced by 90 percent. All Iraqi Army soldiers have likewise redeployed from the city. A skeleton crew of a mere 250 Marines is all that remains as the United States wraps up its final mission in what was once Iraq's most violent city.

“The Iraqi Police could almost take over now,” Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin told me. “Most logistics problems are slowly being resolved. My platoon will probably be the last one out here in the Jolan neighborhood.”

“The Iraqi Police in Jolan are very good,” Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added. “Elsewhere in Fallujah they're not as far along yet. Theoretically we could leave the area now and they would be okay, except they would run out of money.”

Lieutenant Eric Laughlin in Gear.jpg
Lieutenant Gary Laughlin

There's more to the final mission than keeping the Iraqi Police solvent, however. The effort is focused on the Police Transition Teams. Their job is to train the Iraqi Police and bring them up to international standards so the locals can hold the city together after the last Americans leave.

A senior Marine officer whose name I didn't catch grilled some of his men during a talk in the Camp Fallujah chow hall after dinner.

“Do you trust the Iraqi Police?” he said to a Marine who works on one of the teams.

“No, sir,” the Marine said without hesitation. That was the only acceptable answer. This was a test, not an inquiry.

“Why not?” the officer said.

“Because they're not honest,” the Marine said.

“What do the Iraqi Police watch?” the officer said. “What are they looking at on a daily basis?”

“Us,” said several Marines in unison.

“They will emulate you, gents,” the officer said. “They. Will. Emulate you. Why? Because we came over here twice and kicked their ass. I do not trust the Iraqi Police today. Our job is to get them up to speed. They don't need to be up to the standard of Americans. But they do need to be better than they are right now.”

IP with Beret Fallujah.jpg
An Iraqi Police officer

The Marine Corps runs the American mission in Fallujah, but some of the Police Transition Team members are Military Police officers culled from the Texas National Guard. “We're like the red-headed stepchild of units,” one MP told me. “We're from different units from all over Texas, as well as from the Marine Corps.”

One Texas MP used to be a Marine. “I decided I would rather defend my state than my country,” he said jokingly. “But here I am, back in Iraq.”

After I adjusted my embed to focus specifically on Police Transition Teams, I was nearly surrounded by young men from Texas. Many seemed to instinctively understand Fallujah's infamous provincial “nationalism.”

“Fallujah pride is like Texas pride,” I heard from several MPs who, unlike Iraqis from Baghdad, didn't think that was a bad thing.

JSS Exterior Fallujah 1.jpg
A large rented house has been turned into a Joint Security Station where Marines and Iraqi Police live side by side

Training Iraqis to replace Marines is a lot less dangerous than fighting a war, but it's harder. Every single American who has an opinion one way or the other told me it's harder. Iraqis are not lumps of clay or blank slates that can be hand-molded or written on. They are human beings with their own complex history and culture. Most recently they were the brutally micromanaged subjects and enforcers of the regime of Saddam Hussein. If the Americans fail to field an effective local police force, Fallujah may go the way of Somalia and Gaza all over again – and next time there may be no one to save them.

Maybe it will work, and maybe it won't. The Iraqis lag more than a hundred years behind their teachers. “They're where the American police were in the late 18th and 19th centuries,” said Lieutenant Brandon Pearson, a resident military expert in American Criminal Justice. You can see the broad outlines of what he means in old American movies that take place on the Western frontier in places with names like Dodge City. Corrupt lawmen sometimes sided with bad guys while decent, yet weak, lawmen cowered while gunslinging thugs terrorized entire communities.

Officially, on paper, the Americans don't trust the Iraqis. The real world, though, is more complex and...human.

“I trust them little by little,” one MP said as he summed up the majority's actual view. “I trust some of them, the ones we're directly involved with and have a real relationship with. Otherwise, no, not really. I don't. They act like a bunch of third graders, and there's no telling what they do behind closed doors. But when we're out there with them they're doing their job, what they're supposed to do.”

The Americans in Fallujah trust the Iraqi Police a lot more than the Iraqi Police trust the civilians. Many Iraqi Police officers still cover their faces when they go outside the station. They don't want to be recognized, and therefore possibly targeted, by any remnants of the insurgency. Some Iraqi Police won't let me take or publish their photographs.

IP Camo Face Covering Fallujah.jpg

The Iraqi Police are more trustworthy and competent than they used to be. Even the most jaded and pessimistic Marines admit that much, at least. But I do not trust them with my life. It's not because I worry they might hurt me. In Fallujah that's pretty unlikely. But I wouldn't want them as bodyguards in a bad situation.

Sergeant Clarence Foster told me about one of those bad situations as we drank our morning coffee.

“Some bad guys kidnapped the daughter of a prominent city leader last night,” he said.

I sat upright. Whenever I started to think Fallujah might be a kinda sorta “safe” place to visit without armed protection, along came another reality check.

“They took her in the middle of the night,” he said.

“Are you going after them?” I said. “If so, I want to go with you.”

“We're staying out of it,” he said. “The Iraqi Police are handling it. Last night they chased them into a cemetery. They let the girl go, but they're still holed up out there.”

“This is still going on?” I said. “Right now?”

“Yeah,” he said.

For the briefest instant I considered going to the cemetery with the Iraqis, but it was a terrible idea.

“I guess I'm not going then,” I said. “I don't trust them.”

“Well,” he said and laughed. “They aren't as bad as they used to be. And besides, the kind of stuff that goes on here is like what happens in American cities now. It's not like the old Fallujah.”

School Girls Fallujah.jpg
School girls walk home by themselves in Fallujah today. Not long ago, no children were out on the streets and schools were not even open.

Fallujah may not be like the old Fallujah. But it's still Fallujah, and it always will be.


I sat down with Captain Stewart Glenn and his executive officer Lieutenant Chuck Miller at India Company's train station FOB.

“The Marines were the catalyst for providing security,” Captain Glenn said. “But without guys like Colonel Faisal, Captain Jamal, and some of the leaders of the Iraqi Police, this never would have happened. The Marines had the idea of hiring a neighborhood watch, professionalizing the Iraqi Police, providing barriers so they have actual precincts which they can police. Instead of having a centralized station that goes out, they have small precincts now, which is also pretty common in the States. The idea came from the Marines, but the Iraqi Police took it, ran with it, and made it work.”

Blocked Road Fallujah.jpg
Precinct barriers force all vehicles through checkpoints that prevent weapons smuggling and car bombs

Walls Around Fallujah.jpg
Barriers around Fallujah's city limits prevent weapons smuggling and car bombs from outside the city

Fallujah's current policing model did come from the Marines, and it's based loosely on the American idea of community policing. Mayor Tom Potter -- of my hometown Portland, Oregon -- is credited by many for coming up with this method when he was our chief of police. When police officers live and work in their own neighborhoods, have relationships with key neighbors, and patrol small beats on foot as well as anonymously in police cars, trust and community cooperation with law enforcement increases. Crime drops precipitously. Mayor Rudy Giuliani more famously implemented some of the same ideas in New York City.

Captain Glenn and his men are with the 3rd Battalion 5th Regiment which rotated into Fallujah at the end of the summer in 2007. They inherited the current strategy from the Marines who came before them, and who finished off the insurgency just as they were getting ready to leave.

“Some units will come in and scrap the old unit's plan,” he said. “We actually built on it. We kept it because it works. We're not getting shot at. We're not getting blown up.”

“That's good,” I said. “I don't want to get blown up either.”

“Yeah,” Captain Glenn said. “It's pretty awesome. But complacency, you've got to fight it. There's nothing like getting shot at to make you more alert.”

Complacency Kills Flour Mill.jpg

“Have you been shot at at all?”

“We had one pot shot over at ECP 3,” he said. ECP is short for Entry Control Point. “The Marine that was sitting in the post heard a round snap over his head, saw a muzzle flash, then went and investigated. He found a 7.62 casing. And there was another report at another outpost where there was a similar incident. A pot shot at the post. Couldn't see where it was coming from.”

“They found a hole in a sand bag to indicate that somebody did take a shot,” Lieutenant Miller said.

“But they never saw anybody or anything,” Captain Glenn said. “Those are the only two incidents of any kind of activity against coalition forces in our sector. It could be a wide variety of things. It could be somebody shooting a dog and the round...that does happen.”

“That's something we have to be very aware of with the Iraqi Police sometimes,” Lieutenant Miller said. “You've been to Baghdad, I'm sure there's a dog problem everywhere. Some people will just spray them with the AK-47 and Inshallah where the round goes.”

IP truck with mounted machine gun Fallujah.jpg

There is a dog problem in Baghdad, and it's sad. Both Iraqis and Americans have been known to shoot dogs. They don't do it because they're sadistic killers, but because the dogs are wild. And the dogs are trouble. Lieutenant Miller is right, though, about the Iraqi Police. Their near-complete lack of muzzle discipline and careless aiming gets a lot of people hurt and even killed.

“We follow the safety rule of knowing our target and what lies beyond it,” Captain Glenn said. “They know their target, and that's about it. Like when people shoot up in the air. It's not a real popular thing to do in America. Gravity works. A bullet that goes up must come down.”

By all accounts the Iraqi Police in Fallujah are in much better shape than they were, even though they still have serious problems. Whether they're ready for prime time or not, they're being shoved into the role. Some Marines think they're ready. Others do not. Captain Glenn and Lieutenant Miller are more optimistic than some.

“The Iraqi Police are really taking the lead at this point,” Captain Glenn said. “They have the capability and the initiative right now.”

“I think if we pulled back pretty substantially in a couple different places in the city,” Lieutenant Miller said, “you wouldn't even know we were gone.”

“As a matter of fact,” Captain Glenn said, “the Iraqi Police used to want the Marines to lead. Now they say we've got it, we'll call you if we need to.

“So what, exactly, is your purpose here then?” I said.

“Transition,” he said. “Getting the Iraqi Police to totally take the lead. They still have deficiencies when it comes to their logistics, when it comes to their administration, their communications. So we help facilitate that. We're helping build the city government...well, not build it, but facilitate it. Because we do appear to be the power brokers, if you will, we push the government to do what it needs to do.”

Are you the power brokers in the city?” I said.

The Marines were the closest thing Fallujah had to a government for a while, but the mayor's office, the city council, and the neighborhood leaders known as muktars are back in business again. No American is “mayor” of Fallujah anymore.

“I wouldn't say we're the power brokers,” Captain Glenn said. “But the Iraqis perceive that we are. I think the average Iraqi sees that we're America and that we control everything here.”

Blue Bus Fallujah.jpg

“The average American probably sees it that way, as well,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “Well, they're not dumb. They see that our country's GDP is trillions of dollars. They know we have what they perceive to be the best medical care in the world. Most Americans don't believe that, but the Iraqis do. So there's a perception there.”

“It's definitely a team effort,” Lieutenant Miller said. “We work hand in hand with them. It really feels like the Iraqi Police have the lead. They're telling us we don't have to go on as many patrols.”

“There are a lot of different agencies out there,” Captain Glenn said, “that help the Iraqi Police and help them to become a stronger force, different agencies within the Marines Corps like the Police Transition Teams. Their sole focus is the Iraqi Police. That's what they do. They train the Iraqi Police. How to conduct a proper investigation, CSI type stuff. How to be a detective. Stuff that I'm not very well trained in. I can provide them with guidance and oversight, but these guys are the ones who are the experts in that. They get the training on how to do it. They're MPs, they're military policemen, so they understand the investigative process, they understand how to be a detective, they understand how to do CSI.

“We can train the Iraqis on how to handle their weapons properly,” he continued, “how to load and shoot their weapon straight. How to move out in the city. How to enter a house. Some of the Rule of Law things. For example, when you go into someone's house it is not okay to go to the refrigerator and take a drink. You know what I mean? It's a small thing, but they're supposed to be the good guys and this is how good guys act. That's how we affect the police. They see us doing it right, and they really want to be like us. I'm not saying that to be egotistical. You'll see them on patrol and they'll start looking like Marines on a patrol. They're not just walking on the street to walk on the street. They see the Marines, and the Marines are attentive, they're looking down alleyways and making sure everything is clear, then pushing past it. That's what we call a danger area.”

Marine Bullet Holes Fallujah.jpg

“They've also come a long way with the dispatching,” Lieutenant Miller said. “Within each precinct we have an operations center with an Iraqi Police side and a Marine side. They coordinate with each other when they go out so that when the Iraqi Police go out we know where they're going and what they're doing. And it's just as important that we tell them what we're doing because you don't want an incident where somebody accidentally gets hurt.”

“Just like a patrol route,” Captain Glenn said. “You know, the Marines put up a patrol route and say this is where we're going to go. It's small stuff, and I know it isn't real sexy. But this is how you make a country.”


One of the people who help the Marines train the Iraqis is, oddly enough, another Iraqi.

His semi-official name is Staff Sergeant Crash. He is not a Marine, so he is not really a staff sergeant. And his name, obviously, is not really Crash. He's an Iraqi interpreter who goes by a pseudonym. And he is authorized to go by the rank of staff sergeant because he saved the life of a real American staff sergeant in battle.

Crash Fallujah.jpg

“I've been fighting with the Marines in Fallujah for three years,” he told me.

“Fighting?” I said. “You mean they let you carry a weapon?”

“Yeah,” he said and laughed as if my question was silly. But it was not a silly question. I had not yet met an Iraqi interpreter who is allowed to carry and fire a weapon in combat. None of the interpreters I met with Army were allowed to do that. The Marines, though, kept trying to put a gun in my hand, so it's perhaps not surprising that they're willing to let their most trusted Iraqi comrades shoot, too.

“Crash here just earned himself a Green Card,” one of his Marine buddies told me. “He's moving to San Diego, and you know what he's gonna do there? He's going to boot camp. He's going to become a Marine.”

“Congratulations,” I said to Crash. “You've been fighting with Americans for three years, and now you're one of us.”

He grinned. “I won't be able to wear the rank of staff sergeant anymore, though.”

“It's going to be tough for him,” his buddy said, “when he goes to boot camp. Some drill sergeant who has never seen combat is going to call Crash here a stupid piece of shit after he fought with us for three years.”

Crash did not seem to mind, not really. He knows all about boot camp, and expects to rise in the ranks fairly quickly once he gets out.

For every unreliable Iraqi Police officer, there is someone like Crash around to balance him out. Or someone like Superkid.

“Superkid is just great,” Lieutenant Eric Laughlin said. “He's the best. He's been with us since 2006. He always wants to go on patrol with me. Some Iraqi Police officers are lazy and are only with us now because it's safe to be with us now. Those who have been with us since 2004 are very brave, serious, and they really care about their city.”

Some Marines told me that Subzero is their favorite Iraqi. And he hasn't been with the Marines since 2004 because he is only 18 years old.

Subzero was friendly to me...until I tried to take his picture.

“No, no, no, no, no!” he said and covered his face and turned away from me. After I put down my camera he made a slashing motion across his throat.

“Okay, okay,” I said. “I won't take your picture.” But he doesn't understand English and may not have understood.

I did have one blurry photograph that showed the back of Subzero's head as he shadowboxed with Specialist Tomas Morales. He said it was okay if I published that one.

Morales and Subzero Fake Fist Fight.jpg

He avoided me after that, and I did not take it personally. My camera made him nervous. Iraqi Police and Iraqi interpreters go by names like Crash, Superkid, and Subzero because Al Qaeda hunts them and their families. Appearing in newspapers and, especially, on the Internet is risky and brings no reward. Some don't worry about it, but many do.

I tried to take a photo of another Iraqi Police officer and he, like Subzero, yelled no and made a slashing motion across his throat with his finger. Then he pointed at a poster on the wall that showed the handsome face of another Iraqi Police officer. He made that slashing motion again after pointing at this picture. “Muj,” he said, which is short for mujahideen. “Muj finished him. No photo.”

If I understood him correctly, he meant that Al Qaeda killed this man because they recognized his face from the photograph that appeared around town.

Poster of Killed IP Fallujah.jpg

The Iraqi – who wished to remain anonymous – explained further in his limited English. “My father, brother, sister...” he said, then made that slashing motion again.

“His family was killed by Al Qaeda,” a Marine added helpfully. “They were killed because he's a police officer.”

The Iraqi Police officer nodded.

“He went out all by himself and killed the people who did it,” the Marine said.

The officer nodded again.

Sometimes it's hard to know who and what to believe in Iraq. The Marines seem to believe him, so maybe it's true. But Iraqis exaggerate, and they do it a lot. Most exaggerate the crimes of their enemies, and many exaggerate their own heroism.

“If we hear that a woman was raped, maybe she was,” Captain Glenn said. “And maybe somebody just leered at her. We have to filter what they say through that understanding and investigate a bit further to find out what, in fact, actually happened. You are an American. I know how to listen to you and what you mean when you say something. If you tell me your wife was raped, we'll go out right away and find the people who did it.”

Four Iraqi Police officers carried one of their injured comrades into the station. A bloody broken bone jutted out the top of his bare left foot. He winced severely and was obviously in a great deal of pain.

“Man, that's gotta hurt,” I heard a Marine say. “I first thought it was another negligent discharge. The Iraqi Police shoot each other all the time.”

Almost every time I heard a random gun shot in Fallujah, some Marine or other told me not to worry about it. “It's just the Iraqi Police,” was the typical answer. Either somebody fired off a round on accident, or somebody fired a shot in the air. It happened almost every day. It struck me that embedding with the Iraqi Police might be the most dangerous thing I could do in Fallujah. I was more likely to be shot by a police offier on accident than by an insurgent on purpose.


“Do you think what you're doing now is still counterinsurgency?” I said to Lieutenant Andrew Macak. “Or have you moved on to something else?”

“I think today is a perfect example of what counterinsurgency actually is,” he said. “There is not a whole lot of kinetic activity day-to-day, even though that's what people join the Marines Corps to do, for the sense of adventure and everything. That's what we spend most of our time training for. A lot of that is gone now. But in order to be thorough and complete our mission, it's very important for us to do what we're doing right now.”

Counterinsurgency does involves kinetic warfare, of course. That's what the Marines spent most of their time doing in Fallujah and the surrounding area. But the tail end of a successful counterinsurgency mission has to involve what is essentially peacekeeping and nation-building in order to first stabilize and then rebuild the devastated society.

“As far as enemy activity goes now,” Lieutenant Macak said, “it's mostly handled by the Iraqi Security Forces. All we really do is cordon-and-knock raids. Actually, I shouldn't even call them raids. Raids is more of a kinetic term. We'll just cordon off an area and go in to see what's going on. If there is an insurgent living in there, he probably won't be sitting with his AK-47 ready. He'll probably just play stupid like he doesn't know what's going on, that he doesn't know what we're talking about. They capitalize on the Marines lesser knowledge of who's in the area, which is why we take Iraqi Police with us when we go out on patrol. The Iraqi Police officers know who is being deceptive.”

“Do you still do some of the cordon and knock raids?” I said. I was itching to see some kind of drama. Of course I'm relieved that I wasn't in very much danger and that the war in that part of Iraq is effectively over, but it felt perversely unsatisfying at times, like I had arrived just a few months too late.

“We have a couple of target packages that we haven't had a chance to get to yet,” he said.

I went on a another foot patrol from the Khaderi police station. Normally the Americans let the Iraqi Police lead the way to make it appear that they are in charge, even though they are not. But this patrol was at night.

“We go on joint patrols with the Iraqis during the day,” Second Lieutenant A.J. DeSantis said. “We go out alone after dark, though, because the Iraqis get lost.”

Night Shot Nondescript Fallujah.jpg

The Iraqis get lost at night. In their own city. Even though the Americans don't.

I've been driven around by taxi drivers in Beirut who have the same problem. Beirut is small; it only takes an hour to walk from one end to the other. I can't explain how a native Lebanese who works as a driver can get lost in such a small city and rely on me for directions. All I can say is that it happens once in a while, and I know several other Americans who say the same thing happens sometimes to them. Additionally, hardly anyone in the Middle East knows how to give directions. It's just one of those things, and it probably isn't fixable.

So we walked the streets at night by ourselves and left the Iraqis behind so they wouldn't get lost. Don't get the wrong idea, though. Supposedly the Iraqi Police at the Khaderi are good, and better than most in Fallujah. The station is clean and well-organized. Every American I spoke to said the Iraqis there were otherwise competent. “Are they Marines?” Lieutenant A.J. DeSantis asked me rhetorically. “No. But they don't need to be. They just need to keep their neighborhood safe.” And besides, if a sense of direction and navigation is a cultural weakness for even otherwise competent police officers, the insurgents likely have the same problem for the same reasons.

The lieutenant walked alongside me. I snapped a few pictures in the dark.

Three Marines Night Fallujah.jpg

Somewhere off in the distance a dog barked.

“There's some weird dogs in this country,” he said. “Not many Iraqis have dogs, you know. They think they're unclean. Most of these dogs are wild. But there was this one dog that I'll never forget. We heard it barking and growling at us from behind somebody's wall. It was a pet or a guard dog or something, and it sounded enormous, vicious, and threatening. So we went to check it out. It was a guard dog, alright. But it was a Pomeranian. A goddamn Pomeranian guard dog. Strangest thing I've ever seen.”

I laughed and wasn't sure what to make of that.

“So, what's the purpose of this patrol, exactly?” I said. Not a lot happens on patrols in Fallujah anymore. I found them boring after a while. But the Marines and the Iraqi Police still patrol every part of the city on foot every day.

“To show a presence,” Lieutenant DeSantis said. “And to gather some intel. To see if some insurgents are around trying to plant IEDs. There's one guy we've been looking for who drives a [redacted] vehicle, and we'll detain him on sight if we can find him.”

We stopped and talked to several groups of Iraqis who were out at night minding their stores. The lieutenant asked if they had seen anything suspicious and if they had any complaints. The first group we spoke to was a family who ran a corner grocery. None said they had seen anything suspicious. All complained about the ongoing shortage of electricity. Two men also said they had seen nothing suspicious. They were primarily concerned with schools.

“We're refurbishing the schools with our own money,” said one of the Iraqis.

The Marines listened respectfully and said they were trying to get more money from Baghdad.

“It costs 100 dollars for the vehicle sticker,” said another young Iraqi.

That is a scandal. Only residents of Fallujah are allowed to drive in the city, and only if they have a sticker issued by the Iraqi Police on their windshield. Charging 100 dollars for that sticker in a city where the average salary is only 300 dollars per month, and where unemployment is greater than 50 percent, is hardly a strategy for earning the support and respect of the locals.

“I will take care of it,” Lieutenant DeSantis said. “Most of the Iraqi Police are new. There's a lot of room for improvement, but they are improving.”

Marine and Two Civilians Night Fallujah.jpg

“And the fuel,” said the first Iraqi. “It is too expensive. We need fuel to heat our houses. It gets cold here in winter. You will see.”

I felt like I was out with cops who moonlight as politicians, not the fiercest of all American warriors. I can see why there are only 250 Marines in the city. Fallujah really isn't a war zone anymore. It seems like the Marines really should be able to leave once the local government and the Iraqi Police get their act together. Many say that would rather go to Afghanistan where they can still “get some.”

A minority of Marines, however, think this is naive wishful thinking.

“None of the bad guys dares to take a shot at us because they know it's a death sentence if they do,” one of them said. “But they'll go after the Iraqi Police once we pull out.”

“As soon as we leave, it's going to pop off again,” said another.

There is no way they can know that is true. It is just a gut feeling based on what they've seen and what they've heard, and it's the minority viewpoint. But a gloomy Army soldier I met last summer in Baghdad said something so simple, depressing, and obviously correct that I doubt I will ever forget it.

“Iraq will always be Iraq,” he said as he shook his head and stared at his feet.

To be continued.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 27, 2008 10:58 PM


Great article.

Thank you

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 5:51 AM

Great article, as always. "Somewhere off in the distance a dog barked" isn't that a tired old writing cliche? Still, it reminded me of a Far Side I once read and I smiled. Be safe, Michael.

Posted by: jakemonO Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 5:58 AM

Another great article.

Interesting that "Crash" is going to become a Marine. I know several Iraqis who serve in the US forces, including one who is a fighter pilot who participated in the first and second Gulf wars.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 6:12 AM

Another fantastic article Michael! I have one question/thought given your extensive on-the-ground experience.

You have consistently given us a relatively positive picture of Iraqi politics on the ground, particularly in predominantly Sunni cities. Intercommunal violence seems to be on the wane, al Qaeda appears to have lost most if not all popular support, and institutions of local governance look as if they are slowly being rebuilt.

Here's the question: do you see this being replicated at the state-level? The thing that really concerns me is that even as the Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish communities are rebuilding in their respective regions, violence that once predominated at the local level may simply be shifted to the regional level.

Do you see prospects for a functional ethnofederal state or are the three main "ethnicities" consolidating their gains and setting the stage for civil war and secession?

Keep up the great work.

Posted by: zellmad Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 6:27 AM

Marines, Marines, Marines. How about some love for those other American forces who served there and don't get to stay when it becomes peaceful? The U.S. Army's 3rd Division, 1st Brigade, 5-7 CAV is now in their third major mission of this 15 month tour. The 5-7 CAV worked for the Navy Seals and Marines first in Ramadi in January 2007 when it was "hot", were moved to Fallujah to assist Marine BCT6 later in the year when it was burning, and now have been personally requested by the commander of 3rd ID, 2nd Brigade to help "pacify contested areas south of Baghdad". The 5-7 CAV has been used like a rented mule this tour, never under their own command, and then the Marines get the glory. A little recognition for the non-Marine warriors who were in the same battles is overdue.

Thanks for the reporting, though somewhat tunnel-visioned it is. Semper Fi, Marines. Top of the Rock!, 5-7 CAV.

Posted by: twolaneflash Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 6:57 AM

Nice report Michael! Thanks. It's good to see that the gains made by 2/6 haven't been lost. For twolaneflash, Marines (2/6) were the ones who pacified Fallujah in Operation Alljah, Golf Company, and mainly 3rd Platoon. April 2007 - October 2007. Many bad guys killed, worked out of FOB Reaper. No army to be found, RCT-6 at Camp Fallujah. 2/6 Golf Company did it. That's it.

The Army contributed to much in Anbar (Ramadi), but not in Fallujah. Sorry. As they say, "facts is facts."

Posted by: Herschel Smith Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 7:34 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 01/28/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 10:41 AM

Hi Michael,
Another great post. Thank you for being over there and giving us a real unbiased view of what is going on over there. I always forward your reports to everyone in my office. Keep doing what your doing!

Posted by: socalinfidel Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 10:43 AM

Word, Herschel Smith. Word. I got nothing but mad props for 2/6. With another unit from October 2006 to April 2007, many of us often found ourselves questioning the logic of how we were doing certain things, and positing "why can't we do such and such." 2/6 came in and, well, did such and such. During the relief-in-place with the company that replaced us replaced my faith in the U.S. Marine Corps; I've never been more impressed. This is all personal, and highly anecdotal, of course.

As always, thanks for the article, Michael. Here's one of my questions:

The sponge theory of insurgency: you put the squeeze, one way or another, on one area, and the insurgency spills out turning other areas more active. All this talk about how great Fallujah is now is one thing, but what about Mosul, a formerly more pacified city? My question for you is, to what extent to you believe we have squeezed the insurgent sponge of Fallujah to drip or flood fighters into other areas of Iraq? Have you gotten any idea of this from other Marines or Iraqis? In other words, has the insurgency in Fallujah been eradicated, or moved out?

Posted by: PDK Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 10:45 AM

It wasn't a .762 casing. That would be a pretty big round in Western notation, not a hand-held weapon, and not any weapon I've ever heard of.

Rather, I'm certain it was a 7.62mm casing. That's the standard metric notation for Warsaw Pact AK-series rifles. It also is the same diameter and NATO designation for our own .308 rifles (like the M-14, M-1 Garand, WWI-era Springfield, etc).

Posted by: Nathan of Brainfertilizer Fame Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 11:06 AM

It's not often there's anything worth laughing about in your pieces, but the parts about Crash and the Pomeranian were awfully funny. It was great to see some levity injected into an otherwise serious subject.

Great journalism, as always.

Posted by: Nate Francis Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 11:30 AM

Nicely done.
Pomeranians are outstanding watch dogs, as are all of the Spitz family of dogs. They are like car alarms, lots of noise, nothing to back it up, and not much gets past them without notice. My 27lb American Eskimo (basically a 15" tall white Pomeranian) is the fiercest thing on 4 legs, on HIS side of the fence.... Totally harmless face to face.
That little sucker had US Marines snowed! Not bad.

Posted by: Lindsey Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 11:47 AM

Nathan: I'm certain it was a 7.62mm casing.

You are right. Decimal error. Fixed, thanks.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 11:55 AM


Allow me to get a bit more specific on your comments about the 7.62 round. The round that the AK-47 uses, as well as a lot of former Warsaw Pact weapons, is NOT the same round that the NATO forces uses.

The bullet diameter is indeed the same size but the shell most certainly is not. The NATO metric round is the 7.62 × 51 whereas the Warsaw round is a shorter 7.62 x .39.

I like the AK-47 and have used it many times, but I prefer the NATO version as I like the added power and versitility it provides in distance shooting. I am a distance man.

Besides, I think the decimal placement on Michael's part was a typo.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 12:05 PM

PDK: In other words, has the insurgency in Fallujah been eradicated, or moved out?


There is an element of whack-a-mole going on. Some insurgents are killed/jailed while others run away to blow up stuff somewhere else. But the nation-wide insurgency trend is sharply down.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 12:12 PM

Zellmad: Here's the question: do you see this being replicated at the state-level?

No, but I don't learn a whole lot about Baghdad politics when I'm in Iraq. It's hard to do from anywhere outside the Green Zone.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 12:14 PM


They know we have what they perceive to be the best medical care in the world. Most Americans don't believe that, but the Iraqis do. So there's a perception there.

We have the best medical care in the world, we just don't have the most evenly distributed medical care in the world. There might be a few specialties that you can get marginally better treatment for in Switzerland or someplace else, but generally if you want excellent treatment and can afford it you come to the US.

While Iraqi's have any number of superstitions, and their faith in US meds is undoubtedly exaggerated, they aren't far wrong.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 12:51 PM

We do have the best medical care in the world. There is a reason why pre-9/11 Saudi princes and other with riches from the Persian Gulf would come here to the Metro DC area and reserve entire floors of hospitals for their own personal care.

They didnt go anywhere else in the world when they could have. They came here. Since 9/11 this has gone down dramatically due to the fact it is harder for them to come by visas.

I have a friend who is a doctor and she said the hospitals miss the millions these people spent on care here.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 12:56 PM

Herschel Smith,

Au contraire, mon frer. Son, FastLaneFlash, worked with Navy Seals outside Fallujah kicking ass during that period of 2007, closing the rat lines leaving the city. The city "pacified" before the surrounding areas. Marines no where to be found at FOB Viking. That's it. Facts are facts.

Posted by: twolaneflash Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 12:57 PM


Almost every American troop in Fallujah is a Marine at this point. I didn't see any Navy SEALs, let alone embed with them, so I cannot write about them. Sorry.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 1:26 PM


You wouldn't see the SEALS, would you? They would blend in with the dirt and cloud the minds of the people around them using standard ninja mystical practices!

OK, I know several SEALs and while they are impressive warriors capable of tremendous accomplishments, the Hollywood BS surrounding them is BS. I do think the last seven years of war developed the SEALs in a variety of capacities. When I was on Coronado a year and a half ago I saw a lot of outstanding sailors making the effort to become SEALs. I also saw a number of actual SEALs practicing helicopter insertion and extraction. I am glad that these people are getting a lot of money to train far beyond the capacities of our enemies.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 1:53 PM


Previous comment said nothing about FOB Viking. Mentioned FOB Reaper from which all kinetic ops were launched into Fallujah (except for when Marines were embedded with IPs at combination combat outpost / IP Precinct). I'm not making this up, friend. It's all well documented. Google "Operation Alljah" (my article comes up first page, along with Matt Sanchez, and others, etc.). Also, many debriefs of Marines.

Main point here is that it is nice to see that the gains have not been lost. Very good. Makes me happy.

Posted by: Herschel Smith Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 1:54 PM

Another very good article Mr. Totten.

Funny thing; I attended another Terrorism Conference today (Anti actually) and it has been fairly consistent that I usually have a better understanding, such as it is, from my spending 2-3 hours a day reading blogs like yours then that provided by many of the "experts" who tell those of us in various areas of the security field about what is happening in the ME.

When I ask most of the various "experts", whether from the private sector, academia or from DHS/CIA/FBI/TSA/... if they read your material, or Roggios, John Burn, Yon, Blackfive, CQ, military.com/blog, .... the answer is usually: "who?" A few exceptions, but only a few. On the other hand, the same is true for most of the attendees also.

A bit depressing.


Posted by: rsnyder Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 3:03 PM

Marines, Marines, Marines. How about some love for those other American forces who served there and don't get to stay when it becomes peaceful?

Check the archives for summer 2007, when MJT was in Baghdad. He's talking about the Marines now because that's who he's embedded with. Back when he was embedded with the Army, he was talking about the Army.

Here's a good place to start-


Iraq's a big topic, you can't cover everything in just one article.

Posted by: rosignol Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 3:40 PM

Thanks for writing this, Mr. Totten. Another great article. I just have a question: Do you worry that by posting information like this, that there are 250 Marines in Fallujah, that some terrorist cell might read it and swamp the area? Is that possible? Is that a stupid question? Now one of them is going to read my comment and the cartoon light bulb is going to pop up over their head (Fuck you terrorist scum!).

Posted by: James Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 4:31 PM


AQI desperately wants back in Fallujah already. Nothing I publish will make them want to get back there any more than they already do.

I am exposed to information that would endanger operational security, and the U.S. military makes it explicitly clear when that happens. I never leave their op-sec exposed, and I could be thrown out of Iraq if I do. That happened to Geraldo Rivera.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 5:00 PM


I don't think you have to have to worry about pulling a Geraldo; you are discrete and good at keeping confidences by nature. You remember how you kept quiet about that thing that time when that stuff happened.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 28, 2008 5:12 PM

Ah, military jealousy. How new, how original.

Guys, all this talk about who is better - Marines/Army/Navy/Airforce ...

Here is the secret. You all are good and none of you can do away without the other. Let's drink to that.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at January 29, 2008 5:24 AM


Here is the secret. You all are good and none of you can do away without the other. Let's drink to that.

As much as possible, the media has been trying to push the accomplishments of our military down the memory hole during this war. I really can't blame my fellow service members for their efforts to establish a clear record of their accomplishments, even when those efforts become a bit fractious.

I am unclear why the media refuses to see our troops who daily confront roadside bombs, mortar attacks, and deadly atmospherics as afflicted persons deserving of comfort. I suspect it is because the people who make it to executive positions in the media advanced more through guile than talent, integrity, or courage.

Regardless, on this blog the veterans have some hope of the story coming out straight, clear, or for that matter...at all. If they want to put a shout out for those who sacrificed much to achieve victory, let them yell a bit.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 29, 2008 9:10 AM

Patrick S Lasswell,

"I am unclear why the media refuses to see our troops who daily confront roadside bombs, mortar attacks, and deadly atmospherics as afflicted persons deserving of comfort. I suspect it is because the people who make it to executive positions in the media advanced more through guile than talent, integrity, or courage."

I have personal theory us to why. Not necessarily correct one, though.

Because media sees our military as extension of Bush's power and influence.
Most of them blindly hate Bush and therefore everything remotely associated with him.
Bush cannot do well no matter what, so is 'his' military.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at January 29, 2008 11:42 AM


I think it goes much deeper than that, though I will admit the connection is strengthened in many cases by BDS. Before WWI there were intellectual giants of exceptional integrity who could and did defend the military character in the public sphere. After WWI, most of those exceptional men, their adherents, and otherwise uninterested fellows who happened to be stuck in trenches were fully engaged fertilizing the soil of western Europe. Since the same soil was poisoned by chemicals and trapped by unexploded ordnance, even that legacy was compromised.

After WWI, the trauma the West inflicted upon itself critically injured the military identity. Others came to the fore of public approval after the war, including an image of dedicated newsmen. Superman is created with a secret identity of a reporter, not a soldier in 1932. I think that the media has viewed the military as Kryptonite ever since...

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 29, 2008 12:10 PM


I also have another idea about this subject. I grew up as a military brat. Both of my parents were officers in the military. I was born abroad and basically grew up in the military.

More and more as time goes on it seems that the military in the USA is almost becoming a society in itself.

My ex wife was in the military and I worked for the DoD. Often it seemed that we lived almost completely in a different world. We shopped at the PX/BX, got our food at the commissary, attended almost solely military social functions and all of our friends were related to the military in one fashion or another. When we had the chance we lived in military housing, we ate at restaurants on base, went to the club on base. Our life was pretty much centered around the base and the military.

I know better than most that this runs in certain families and often impact certain regions of the country more than others. Now that I am divorced and no longer work for the DoD my interaction with the military has dwindled to almost nothing. If not for the area I work in (metro DC) I might never have any contact with members of the military, aside from friends made whilst "attatched" to the military and former co-workers.

It is entirely possible to work and live in the USA and never know someone who has been in the military or who is currently serving. The closeness of military life has it's ups and it's downs. I don’t know if I want to say it is a choice by military members and families to segregate themselves, but in effect what is what happens. I know it happens out of convenience, why leave the base if you live there and can get everything you need there, often at cheaper prices? But at the end of the day the fact that American military bases end up becoming little cities within cities isn't always such a good idea.

It used to bug the crap out of me that I'd hear soldiers/airmen bragging about being stationed abroad for 3-4 years and never having gone more than 5 miles from their bases. I used to think what a waste it was that other service members who wanted to travel and actually get something out of it were sometimes denied the opportunity. Now I see that attitude as endemic of something else. When you see this abroad it shows that the guys are just missing out on a good opportunity. When it happens at home it shows how easily the military can become a society within a society.

There is a gap between the military, military families and the rest of American society. I guess this is inevitable with an all volunteer force, but it also means that for a whole section of Americans, the military and it's way of life is a bit foreign. For a good chunk of Americans who have absolutely no connection with the military, they just don’t care too much. For me this is a bit odd, six years after coming back from abroad with the DoD, I still maintain contacts from the military and keep up on what is going on at my former bases. For a lot of Americans, the military is just an abstract.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at January 31, 2008 12:44 PM


A lot of that gap is also self-imposed. The troops aren't allowed to go out in uniform very many places anymore and socialize. The burden of supervising all those people and cleaning up all those messes just makes it unwise to have guys in uniform getting puke-drunk. The decision to encourage the troops to transit to and from Iraq in camouflage was brilliant.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of people in the reserves and the active duty component has been more vigorously exposed to experienced veterans who have a civilian life as well. This kind of mixing hasn't really happened since Korea and I really think it is doing some good for military. We have a lot of reservists going abroad, and we have a lot of active duty people getting exposed to grown-ups.

(On the negative side of this, some reserve-only communities were handling so complex a mission that newly formed active-duty units failed to match their competence. It turns out that a bunch of thirty to fifty year olds can do a lot of things easily that twenty year olds can't do at all. This is negative for me because the Navy decided to grind my community into sausage and re-form us...and then Congress cut off our funding. Welcome to the fun of making bricks without straw.)

I think we need an expansion in the military to get a good bit closer to Cold War levels. I think it is key that we offer incentives a lot closer to the original GI Bill than the swindle they dropped on kids in the 1990s. We also need to pay the troops better than what untrained construction workers make. Money doesn't buy happiness, but it sure helps keep a lot of unhappiness distant. More to the point, it makes a military career a more rational pursuit for talented people. It also lets the troops show themselves in public with pride.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at January 31, 2008 11:46 PM

I agree Patrick with what you have said. As to the pay issue, it is getting better. The bonuses handed out now are pretty handsome even to what I saw back in 2001 when I was last around the military full time.

One of the reasons I got out of DoD work was the extensive travel and time away from home. For those people who can make much more money outside of the military this fact kind of renders the bonus idea irrelevant. I can make more money doing several things outside of the military than I ever could inside of it even if they double the bonuses plus I don’t have to worry about months and often years away from my family.

If the military were enlarged this would change a bit. Deployments wouldn’t always have to be as long or as often. Some of the people I worked with have been in Iraq for a total of 2-3 years, which is unusual outside of combat troops, but not expected for what I did. Had I not left the DoD I would have been there with them.

As to enlarging the forces, the key is to bring in people who are quality. I heard a report the other day that said that about only 80% of current enlistees had a high school diploma. Letting these people in now might fill the holes but it will create a big problem with quality in the long term.

We need a shift in mindset where service to county becomes important again.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at February 1, 2008 5:58 AM


I heard a report the other day that said that about only 80% of current enlistees had a high school diploma.

I can assure you that either you heard it wrong or they reported it stupidly. The number 80% might be accurate in describing a derivative, like the percentage increase in the percentage increase of GED recipients, but it is not direct number. The perception the report might have wanted to leave you with, easy through offering one firm number to fix on and the rest of the statistics mumbled about, was that MacNamara idiocy was back in season. I am certain that is not the case.

My best friend has a GED and the major reason he didn't get into the military when I did is that he is 6'4" and was over 260# as kid. The military doesn't make charts to describe his size; big people don't exist to modern military medicine. Diversity advocates apparently can't get funding from people of different physical size groups, so they get no hysterical representation.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at February 1, 2008 8:15 AM

The weight/size thing was always an issue with the people I worked with. I worked with one sgt who was a competitive bodybuilder. He far exceded the weight the military said he could have. It was pretty insane considering the guy had a body fat of probably 4%.

Anyway, the report I heard mentioned talked solely about 2007 recruits. Even at 80% I think it puts the percentage of people in the military with a High School diploma at higher than the national average, which is 75%.

I still think we need to work on a way to get national service, whether it be military or otherwise, to be more appreciated.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at February 1, 2008 9:09 AM


Back in the 90's the Marine Corps let go a builder because he couldn't complete pullups. His arms and lats were so big that he couldn't bring them down far enough to clear his chin over the bar. Guy was built like a wedge, just couldn't show full range of movement. I'd have a lot more sympathy if he hadn't done it to himself.

I am less concerned about the value of the diploma over the GED for recruits. The US military has much greater incentives, tools, and skills for adjusting wayward youths than the NEA. The social failures that GEDs indicate are much less important in the military where we have our own socialization process.

I am strongly opposed to involuntary national service. I would love to have a voluntary national service that earned a capping on your tax rate later in life. It would be kind of fun to have an excess of Wharton School graduates in Supply instead of the talent pool we draw on now...

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at February 1, 2008 4:31 PM

Great article Michael. If there are only 250 Marines left in Fallujah, where is the rest of 3rd batallion/5th Marine regiment? My son is with India, and says there is a batallion there. Is this not about 1000 men?

Posted by: dzookie Author Profile Page at February 26, 2008 8:47 AM
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