February 3, 2008

The Final Mission, Part II

IP Truck and Rubble Fallujah.jpg

FALLUJAH – The United States military plans to formally hand over Anbar Province to the Iraqis this spring because the insurgency truly is finished in that part of the country. Most Americans have heard about the success in this province by now, but few seem to be aware that the cities of Anbar were the scenes of the most ferocious fighting: Ramadi, Haditha, and – worst of all – Fallujah.

The Americans in Fallujah are focused now on what they expect to be their last mission: the training of the Iraqi Police to replace the Marines.

Optimism and cynicism exist side by side. All the Americans I spoke to said the Iraqi Police are improving. Most are cautiously optimistic about their ability to stand on their own – later. Hope comes naturally in Fallujah right now because even this place, of all places, is peaceful and quiet. But a substantial minority has serious reservations after spending some quality time with Iraqis.

“We should have just left Saddam in power,” said an MP from the Texas National Guard who did not want to be named. “That's all these people understand.”

Fallujah is the heartland of Baath country. It's the most aggressively Sunni Arab city in all of Iraq. Residents deny the insurgency once had a popular base of support, possibly to save face, but it did. Some Fallujans are Islamists, some were and still are disgruntled Baathists, and others just needed the money. Even some police officers were insurgents.

“Some of them will tell you straight up that the only reason they're Iraqi Police officers is because it pays better than the insurgency,” Sergeant White said. “I hear that and I want to say Hold this guy while I go get my pistol.

“Some Neighborhood Watch guys were insurgents, too,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot said. “We know some of them by name. They were working for insurgents to get paid, not because they were jihadis. So we pay them more.”

“How do you feel about them?” I said.

“I sympathize with them,” he said. “If they're shooting at me, it's time for them to die. They aren't my friends. But I can hang out with them and shoot the shit. We do try to be nice to them to make it harder for them to join another insurgency later. We don't want them to get fired because they love the action and we don't want them loose in circulation.”

“How many do you suppose were ideologically motivated?” I said. That's a hard question to answer, but an officer who has been in Fallujah for months should have a better sense of it than I do.

“Only a very small percentage,” he said. “They wanted to be free, or employed, or they were there for the action. Not because they wanted to live under a religious tyranny. There are lots of mosques here, as you know, but very few people are in the mosques during prayer time.”

He could tell I was slightly skeptical. If what he said wasn't true, though, in 2004, it certainly is in 2008. “The reason we're winning isn't because of the Marines,” he said. “We've done our part, but we're winning because of our support from the Iraqi people.”


I sat down with three Police Transition Team members who work exclusively with the Iraqi Police.

“We've already seen a pretty significant difference,” Specialist Brian Henderson said. “When we first got here and went on patrols with the guys from the Dubat station they were just looking around. Now they're trying to work on their intervals, their staggers, the stuff that we've taught them. They're putting this stuff into play more and more.”

Specialist Brian Henderson.jpg
Specialist Brian Henderson

“What's the biggest challenge for you guys?” I said.

“The language barrier is tough,” Specialist Tomas Morales said. “They do want to learn. They want to get it right, and we want to help them get it right. But we only have one interpreter per squad, per fifteen guys.”

Specialist Tomas Morales.jpg
Specialist Tomas Morales

The shortage of interpreters also made it hard for me to interview Iraqis. Hardly any of them speak English, and it takes years of full-time intensive study and immersion to speak a dialect of Arabic well enough to conduct a professional interview.

An Iraqi Police officer asked me if he could borrow my pen while I was writing in my notebook. I thought he only needed it for a second, but he ran off when I handed it to him.

“You have to be careful with these guys,” Specialist Henderson said. “You'll think they're borrowing it, but you'll never see it again.” He then gave me a weather-proof space pen so I could continue taking notes during our interview. The Iraqi Police officer returned a few moments later, handed my pen back, and flashed me a grin. They aren't all liars and cheats.

“When I was in Ramadi a few months ago,” I said, “the Iraqi Police were having major logistics problems. The Americans were taking care of everything for them.”

“That's one of the things we do here,” Specialist Alan Martin said. “This station is pretty well-established. Someone takes account of all their weapons. They had problems with Iraqi Police giving their weapons away to family members because they thought they were gifts. Same with vehicles and stuff like that. Now they're keeping a count of them and making them sign for them, letting them know they're accountable.”

Specialist Alan Martin.jpg
Specialist Alan Martin

“If you all left today,” I said, “could the Iraqi Police stand on their own?”

“I think this station [Khaderi] would last a while,” Specialist Henderson said, “but they need some supervision still. I know many of them who really don't want us to leave.”

“Do any of them want you to leave?” I said.

“I don't think...I think they're just wanting to rely on themselves,” Specialist Morales said. “It's like a pride thing. They don't really want us to leave, but they want to be established on their own.”

The Police Transition Teams, which include Marines and members of the Texas National Guard, live and work in small Joint Security Stations with the Iraqis. They focus strictly on a single unit of Iraqi Police officers, and they're responsible for security in only one small precinct of the city.

JSS Behind Barbed Wire Fallujah.jpg
Joint Security Station, Fallujah

“I swear I don't mean to sound like I'm selling something,” Sergeant Stephen Deboard said when I first arrived in the city. “But what the Marines are doing out there in the city is amazing. They are so integrated in the community. The first time I stayed at one of the stations I awoke to the sound of an Iraqi baby crying and the smell of the neighbor's eggs cooking. They're living right there with the Iraqis.”

“I never thought I'd walk around a place like Fallujah and see people I know,” Sergeant Clarence Foster said and laughed.

The small stations are a world apart from Regiment headquarters at Camp Fallujah ten miles outside the city. Hardly anyone who lives and works at Camp Fallujah goes outside the wire on a regular basis.

Camp Fallujah doesn't even feel like it's in Iraq. Large military bases look and feel more like Planet Army. (In the case of Camp Fallujah, it's more like Planet Marines.) There aren't many Iraqis around, although there are some. Almost everyone is an American, and most of the buildings are temporary structures built by Americans, specifically by the Kellogg, Brown, and Root corporation (KBR).

Smoke Pit Fallujah.jpg
Outdoor smoking section

At night it's dark at Camp Fallujah and Camp Baharia, a smaller but still large Marine base outside the city on a lake where Uday Hussein once had a retreat and a complex of night clubs. Lights are out after dark so insurgent mortar men will have a harder time aiming their rounds. Neither base comes under mortar fire these days, but the Marines feel no need to add street or stadium lights. Everyone carries small LED flashlights. At Camp Baharia, dim red lights are placed on objects such as trash cans so no one bumps into them in the dark.

The Joint Security Stations are converted houses. Marines and Iraqi Police officers live in them, and they feel as much like homes as military and police stations. The highest ranking officers are usually lieutenants, and lieutenants are the lowest ranking officers in the military. Joint Security Stations, then, have a much less formal feel than the large bases where battalion and regiment level officers live.

Playing Ball JSS Yard Fallujah.jpg

Marines and Iraqis play football and soccer in the back yard, watch movies on big screen TVs in the rec room, and lift weights in makeshift gyms with equipment they designed and built by hand. Weight-lifting isn't the only thing that goes on in those gyms. “Marines are getting into Pilates now,” Lieutenant J.C. Davis told me. “That shit hurts. It just hurts.” Pilates, officially, is no longer girly.

Unfortunately, living in a rented house in Iraq means living like Iraqis. Dust and filth cover everything. If they have running water at all, it isn't potable. Toilets don't work properly, and the Marines rarely even attempt to use them. Have to take a piss? There's a tube out back that leads into the ground. Solid waste goes somewhere else. Needless to say, no women live or work at these stations.

Piss Here Fallujah.jpg

Large bases are luxurious by comparison, even though the “standard of living” at these places is lower than the standard of living for poor Americans in public housing compounds in the slums. No one ever complains.

There is no garbage collection at a Joint Security Station, and there certainly isn't a recycling program. All trash is tossed into a burn pit. These burn pits give off a strange sort of scorched-everything-at-the-same-time smell. It is neither pleasant nor foul, and it smells probably like a city would if it were on fire.

A Marine unit I embedded with spent a few hours at the Fenton station in the Dubat neighborhood on the way to the main Fallujah station downtown. Earlier in 2007, Fenton took a hit from a suicide dump truck bomb. The explosion blew gigantic concrete Texas barriers into the house. Amazingly, only the driver was killed.

JSS from Second Floor.jpg
Fenton Station, Dubat, Fallujah

We stopped there to have lunch and I gagged on my way into the kitchen.

“What is that smell?” I said. It was sour, horrendous, and so overwhelming I could taste it.

“Rat piss,” Sergeant Foster said.

“Oh, God,” I said, and bolted out the door back into the living room. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” he said.

“I killed twelve of them in here myself,” said another MP.

The others laughed at me, but at the same time they sympathized. They saw their own selves reflected back at them. All reacted the same way to their rodent-contaminated kitchen when they were first exposed to that nastiness. “You get used to it after a while.”

I did not stay for a while, so I did not get used to it. All of us had to retrieve our food from the fridge and use the microwave, but some of the MPs actually ate in that stench cloud.

The food at these stations in terrible. You're lucky if you can scrounge up a microwaved hot pocket or pizza. Usually we were stuck with tasteless and over-cooked “chow” that spent months or even years in cardboard boxes stacked in the pantry. Steaks are cooked in boiling water. Corn is canned, of course. The macaroni and cheese is so bland it doesn't even work as plausible comfort food. Barbecued ribs are all bone. Meals in Iraq prepared by Marines at small stations gave me a real appreciation for food served in the gigantic D-FACs (dining facilities) at Camp Fallujah. And food at Camp Fallujah's D-FACs makes dinner at Denny's sound awesome.

Embedding with the military in Baghdad and Fallujah has given me a deeper appreciation for the comforts of modern civilization than I would have thought possible when I was younger.

Mortar Damage Hallway Fallujah.jpg

At least the Marines' food is hot. It wasn't when they first got there.

“All we had was a bunch of stoner food,” Specialist Henderson said back at the Khaderi station. “When we first moved in we roughed it and lived off muffins, beef jerky, and Pop-Tarts. I'm never eating another Pop-Tart again.”

He and I ate microwaved pizza-stuffed Hot Pockets for lunch. They weren't too bad. Another Marine ate two hamburger patties sandwiched between two Hot Pockets. Somehow he managed to get his mouth around all that. He washed it down with apple juice concentrate that was supposed to be diluted with water. Marines need their calories.

“There's a lot of military houses in this part of the city,” Specialist Henderson said. “Lots of retired generals live around here. And there's no bullet holes in these houses. Kinda makes you think, doesn't it?”

The Askeri neighborhood next door took a heavier beating because it was the entry point for the battle of Al-Fajr in November, 2004.

“We couldn't go ten feet in Askeri in 2005 without drawing all kinds of fire,” Specialist Kaufman told me. “There were blown up cars everywhere.”

Informal group interviews are hard to maintain because they often segue into small talk and jokey banter.

The Pringles Guy Fallujah.jpg
Specialist Kaufman

“My personal goal is to shave his mustache,” Specialist Henderson said about Specialist Kaufman, out of the blue and apropos of nothing. “He's like the Pringle's guy.” It's a little bit harder to extract information from younger Marines, but they can be more fun to hang out with.

“I guarantee you that if I invented Pringles,” Specialist Kaufman said, “I wouldn't be here.”

Pringles Guy.JPG

“I drew the Pringles man on the ladder up to his bunk,” Specialist Morales said and laughed.

“Now why don't you suck my left nut and make my right nut jealous,” Specialist Kaufman said.

“Dude, what would you do if we shaved off half your mustache in your sleep?” Specialist Henderson said.

“I'd keep the other half,” Specialist Kaufman said.

Young Marines and soldiers almost constantly joke around with each other when they aren't actively doing something that requires their complete attention. Occasionally they will even make fun of me when they sense that I won't get offended and give them bad press to get back at them.

Some Marines and soldiers, though, just do not know what to make of me. At the small stations in the city I was almost always the only civilian around. Many did a double-take when they saw my civilians clothes. Who the heck's this guy? Many seemed to think I only just arrived in Iraq and haven't seen anything yet. After I returned from every foot patrol, somebody always asked me what I thought. “Kind of boring, actually,” I always said. “But that's good.” The response was almost always the same: laughter. I think they expected me to be scared. Every civilian they talk to at home thinks Fallujah is scary. But I knew better because I was in Fallujah just like they were. There's no war in Fallujah right now, and that's obvious when you're there for several weeks.

I met a young Marine named Austin -- he did not give me his last name and he wasn't wearing his rank – who grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. “I'm from a really bad area,” he said. “I didn't even go outside when I was a kid. Fallujah is a lot better.” I believe that from what I've read about East St. Louis. “My Mom doesn't believe me. She thinks I'm hiding stuff from her. So does my sister.”

Inside JSS from Stairs.jpg
Joint Security Station, Jbail, Fallujah

I cannot tell you how many times I heard someone say “Mom, it's fine here,” when talking to family members back home on the phone. “Don't believe everything you see on TV.

One Marine I met, Lieutenant Brandon Pearson, was particularly suspicious of me when I showed up at his station. He asked me all kinds of questions as if I might be some kind of a threat. Who do you work for? What are you trying to do here, exactly? Are you authorized to just walk around without an escort?

Later he apologized for being standoffish and paranoid. “I don't really know what I'm supposed to say to a reporter,” he said.

“You can say whatever you want,” I said. “Just don't tell me anything classified.”

He didn't say much on the record about the mission in Fallujah and preferred to talk of more personal matters. I liked him after he relaxed and was always happy to see him.

“I love fighting,” he said. “Well, not fighting exactly, at least not for its own sake. I mean, I love forcing an oppressor to stop abusing a defenseless person. I love telling him this isn't your day. I can't imagine anything more satisfying than that.”


I visited Lieutenant Nathan Bibler's Joint Security Station on the very last day of its existence. The Marines and the Iraqis were moving out of their large rented house and into a brand-new station that had just been built by an international contracting company.

While his men loaded sandbags from the windows and roof onto a seven ton truck, he and I sat in his office and talked about his mission and the Iraqi Police.

Now You Cant See Me Fallujah.jpg

“Do you trust the police?” I said.

“I trust that they know what's going on in Jbail,” he said, “and that they don't want another insurgency from Al Qaeda or anyone else.”

Jbail is in the slums of Fallujah, in the southern part of the city. Many of Jbail's residents worked in the industrial district, but most of the factories there haven't re-opened.

“We talk to the police,” he continued, “and hang out with them downstairs sometimes. A lot of them have had family members killed by Al Qaeda, especially the chiefs. So I trust that they want security to be established.”

“How competent are they?” I said.

“They know the people really well,” he said.

“I mean, do they have good police skills?”

“That's what the Police Transition Team is for,” he said. “The transition from para-military to police is what's going on right now. When the Neighborhood Watch was created they were taking fire just like we were, if not more. Now that things have calmed down, we can focus on the finer details that come with police work like tactics and communication.”

Earlier in the afternoon I joined him and his men as they walked to a mukhtar's house for a meeting. (Mukhtars are neighborhood representatives on Fallujah's city council.) The mukhtar wasn't at home, so we missed our meeting, but I got a tour of the neighborhood. The poorest section of town didn't feel any more dangerous or sketchy than the nicer areas to the north of us.

“How dangerous would it be for me to walk around in Fallujah by myself?” I said. “How safe or stupid would that be?”

Men with Bicycles Fallujah.jpg

“It depends,” he said. “You could probably go right now and walk around this whole area today and be fine. You'd be approached a lot by the kids, but you'd be fine. But if you made that a pattern, I wouldn't be comfortable with that. If Al Qaeda or someone is watching, you'd be in trouble. But I think if you did it once you would be fine. You see how people are.”

Yes, I see how people are. Every Iraqi I met in Fallujah who was not being held in a jail as a suspected terrorist was friendly, warm, and hospitable. It is, of course, possible that I've met someone who would kidnap me if I didn't have the Marines as my bodyguards, but the overwhelming majority of Fallujans wouldn't hurt me even if they do hate my guts for being American. The problem is that a small percentage would do something terrible if they could, and it's impossible to know who to trust. I certainly shouldn't trust the entire city of Fallujah and walk around loose on my own. I suspect the lieutenant is right, though, that if I did it once nothing would happen. The average Fallujan isn't a terrorist. The whole city rose up as one against the head choppers and car bombers.

“There haven't been many attacks in the city since we got here,” Lieutenant Bibler said. “We haven't found a house with bomb-making materials in it.”

I should stress, here, that he is speaking specifically about his area of operations, which is the neighborhood of Jbail. It is the only part of Fallujah he has even seen.

“We haven't found anyone taking pictures or anything like that,” he said. “Which is not what we expected coming in. It's a tribute to the unit that was here before us, and to the Iraqis who have worked so hard to flush that stuff out. We've been patrolling hard since we got here. We found some weapons caches and explosives, but it was old. It had been there for a while.”

“Where do you find this stuff?” I said.

“In lots,” he said. “Buried under rubble.”

Lot with Rubble Fallujah.jpg

“How do you find it?” I said.

“People,” he said. “People call it in. The Iraqi Police have brought in most of it.”

“Do you know what the local people think of the Iraqi Police?” I said.

“They're happy that the Iraqi Police are keeping security,” he said. “You know the Neighborhood Watch? They have to come from this neighborhood. We have 157 of them. So a lot of the community is a part of that effort. And you have their families that are connected. Iraqis have pretty big families. For the most part people are happy with it. Because security is so good we hear about issues like water, food, and electricity. A lot of people are looking forward to the barriers being lifted so they can drive freely without having to pass through the checkpoints.”

Each neighborhood is surrounded by concrete Jersey and Texas barriers that route all vehicle traffic through checkpoints. The walls are inconvenient and ugly, but they instantly put a stop to the car bombs.

Two Iraqi Cops South Fallujah.jpg

“The checkpoints work really well because the Iraqi Police check every vehicle, every ID,” he said. “It really stemmed the flow of weapons because they're going to get caught with them.”

Lieutenant Bibler was moderately optimistic about Fallujah's prospects. Just about every Marine I spoke to was surprised by the dramatic changes that had taken place. A full-blown revolution had taken place in the city. But I understand why some Marines have a dim view of the place. It's hard, sometimes, to trust that a corrupt and incompetent police force will ever be able to hold off the likes of Al Qaeda without some assistance.

One problem with the Iraqi Police that gets almost no press at all is their immaturity. Someone remarked that “they act like a bunch of third graders,” and at times they really do. Every day Iraqi kids gave me the mister mister picture picture routine when they saw my camera. Some of the police officers did the same thing. They want me to take their picture over and over and over again. It's a way for them to get fifteen seconds of fame. Other Iraqi Police officers don't want me to take their picture because they are still afraid of the insurgents.

Three Kids Volleyball Game Fallujah.jpg

At the Amariyah station in a village just outside Fallujah, several Iraqi Police officers sat at the dispatcher's desk and watched explicit pornography streamed over the Internet. They whooped and yelled and elbowed each other as the video kept getting racier. I sat at a desk just behind them and tried to work on an article, but they kept trying to get me to watch the video with them. Several Marines shared this work space with them, and all of them ignored the Iraqis and tried to pretend the porno show wasn't on.

Marines aren't even allowed to check their personal email accounts while they're on duty, let alone watch explicit sex videos on a laptop.

Irony abounded in that room. Iraqi culture is orders of magnitude more sexually conservative than American culture. Soldiers and Marines in particular are not shy or restrained when it comes to sex (except when they have to be while they're on deployment). Yet the Americans in the room were the ones put off by the pornography. It wasn't because they are uptight or square, but because porn on the job could hardly be less professional. Some of them rightly accused the Iraqi men of hypocrisy. “How come you guys cover your women but you sit around all day looking at our women without any clothes on?”

I had to pick up my laptop and move. The movie wasn't the only distraction. The Iraqi dispatcher's radio was set to screaming loud, as they usually are. I don't know how they can stand to listen to garbled Arabic and loud static squelches at such a high volume. Arabs (and also Israelis) have an entirely different definition of “loud.” Europeans who think Americans are too brash and loud ought to spend some time in the Middle East and hear what people really sound like when they have no volume control.

Sergeant White walked past the dispatchers and their porn and shook his head. Later, when we were outside the station and outside Iraqi earshot, he unloaded on them. He was not too impressed with the Iraqi Police in general. “They don't show up for work,” he said. “They say I'll be at work tomorrow, Inshallah. I call bullshit on that. I tell them that they made a decision not to come into work the night before and that they can't blame that shit on God.”

Back at the main Fallujah police station, Sergeant Jason Howell pulled me aside.

“What are you hearing from Marines about the Iraqis?” he said.

“A whole range of opinion,” I said. “I probably hear the same things you hear. It doesn't sound to me like anyone censors themselves.”

He clearly itched to say something to me on the record. I didn't know if it would be good or if it would be bad, but that didn't matter. I turned on my digital voice recorder.

“I was here before,” he said. “This isn't my first time in the Fallujah area.”

I knew then that he would say something good about the Iraqi Police. He has seen progress with his own eyes on two separate deployments. All the returning veterans I spoke to were on average more optimistic than the others.

“You had the same job before?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I was actually in Karmah.”

Karmah is a smaller city about a ten minute drive (at normal speeds) from Fallujah toward Baghdad. It is sort of a suburb, and also a place unto itself. Every single Marine and MP said Karmah was more dangerous, violent, and terrifying than Fallujah. You probably have not even heard of it, but that's because journalists have not spent any time there. From the point of view of Americans who fought there or elsewhere in Anbar, Karmah might as well have been Mordor.

Stairs Through Broken Doorway Fallujah.jpg

“I was on a Police Transition Team,” he said. “We were the first embedded Police Transition Team that had taken over that station. When we started we had around 65 Iraqi Police, and when we left we had 94. We made a lot of progress. We improved the station. The biggest success we had there was the relationship we built with the Iraqis. This mission revolves around the relationships and friendships we make with these guys. They won't work with you unless they trust you, just like you won't work with them unless you can trust them.”

“You trust them, then?” I said.

“I do,” he said. “In general. There will always be some questions, just like in a police department back in the States. You won't necessarily know everybody that well or on that personal of a level. But in general I do trust these guys. They sacrifice a lot to do this job. I think a lot of people who come over here with a negative outlook, with a negative opinion of them, they don't think about the fact that they aren't just sacrificing their own safety. While they're out here doing this job, nobody is at home protecting their families. Their families are at home unattended, and they are constantly threatened. Coalition forces are obviously high-priority targets for insurgents, but another major priority is these Iraqi Police officers and their families. They risk a lot. They put a lot on the line to do this job.”

“You seem more optimistic than some of the others I've talked to,” I said. “Is that because of your experience last year, or is there another reason?”

“I had a very good experience last year,” he said. “We were fully embedded. We lived in the police station 24/7. I didn't leave the police station but once a month. I had very good relationships, life friendships, with my Iraqi Police officers. After all the things I've seen – they show you respect if you understand what they put themselves and their families through – it gives you a better understanding of the sacrifices they make.”

“What do you think about the Iraqi Police who used to be insurgents?” I said.

He laughed darkly. Clearly he did not want to talk about that.

“There's some controversy about this in the U.S.,” I said. “A lot of people are worried that we are arming and training our enemies.”

“Obviously if that happens, that's bad,” he said. “I've been lucky enough so far not to have experienced that. I haven't met any Iraqi Police who were insurgents. I've heard of that happening, but I haven't had that experience.”

“What if you did meet an Iraqi Police officer who was an insurgent?” I said. “Would that bother you or be water under the bridge?”

Some Marines really don't care all that much as long as the Iraqis are genuinely on their side now. So many Iraqis switched sides after the Anbar Awakening that it may not even be possible to keep all the former insurgents off the police force. It might even be foolish to try, just as dissolving the Iraqi Army after the invasion is widely seen now as a mistake.

“If that happened,” Sergeant Howell said, “there would have to be some questions and further investigation. All I can really say is, thank God I haven't had to deal with that personally.”

“So, what kind of progress have you seen?” I said. “What were the Iraqi Police like when you first got here compared to what they're like now?”

“A lot of the guys in general have a lot of experience,” he said. “Whether it's policing or with tactics and patrolling operations. A lot these guys were in the Iraqi Army for 20 years before joining the police force. There are people who were medics in the Iraqi Army. And the good thing about these police stations is that the Iraqi Police are from the local towns. Soldiers in the Iraqi Army come from everywhere in the country. This really helps the Iraqi Police because they know all the civilians who live in these towns, just like in the small towns back home. This helps build trust between the police and the civilians.”

What about the progress he's seen?

“When we first got to our station last year,” he said, “the Iraqi Police were not being paid, they weren't really operating, and few bothered to show up for work. By the time we left, we had 94 Iraqi Police officers hired. They were being paid. They did show up for work. They were doing joint operations with us. They were going out into the city, talking to people. The biggest thing that helped us was our relationship with them, the friendships. I have to be honest with you. Saying goodbye was emotionally hard. I lived with these guys for seven months.”

He choked up a bit and had to look away for a moment, lost in memories of something deeply personal and trying hard not to cry.

IP with Keffiyeh Karmah.jpg
An Iraqi Police officer in Karmah

“I was lucky enough three weeks ago to go back to Karmah,” he said. “And my Iraqi Police were still there. The same guys from last year. As soon as I came into the station and they saw me they started jumping around, dancing, and yelling. There are four brothers who are all Iraqi Police at the Karmah station. One of the brothers was on shift when I got there. That night he called his brothers and his father – his father is a tribal leader – and they all came in the next day. Their father wanted to meet me.”

He choked up again slightly and had to pull himself together.

“So...there's a lot more to this mission,” he said. “If you go into everything with an open mind, you can take so many lessons out of this mission, not only with community policing and the mission at hand, but with human relationships in general.”

Iraqi Police Nice Chair Fallujah.jpg

I had heard this before. Maybe the majority of Americans who work closely with Iraqis feel something like this. Despite the corruption. Despite the incompetence. Despite the fact that some of them act like a bunch of third graders. The Iraqis really are brave, even if it doesn't look that way sometimes from far away or even up close. They are fighting for their survival in ways most Americans can barely imagine. Their enemy is possibly the most ferocious group of indigenous killers in the entire history of Mesopotamia.

“We’ve actually become attached to these people on a personal level,” Army Colonel John Charlton said to me in Ramadi last summer. “We feel responsible for their safety. We’re concerned about what will happen to our Iraqi friends if we don’t succeed in this country.”

To be continued...

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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at February 3, 2008 11:57 PM

thank you, michael! again highly interesting reading not available elsewhere. invaluable!

say - do you prefer users of blogpatron to switch to the new shiny buttons for recurring paypal payments?

Posted by: Aram Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 1:52 AM

Thanks, Aram.

Pay Pay is preferred at this time, please. Blog Patron is on hiatus for new members at this time, but is still processing normally and without any problems for people already enrolled.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 1:59 AM

I already have you on blogpatron, so if there's no disadvantage to you by my continuing with it I'll just leave it that way.

Posted by: Aram Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 5:42 AM

Nice stuff. No straight lines in the desert.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 6:11 AM

I was raised in a nice orderly household with two parents who were officers in the military. It took me years of traveling in the Middle East to get used to just how loud Arabs are.

Great article.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 6:17 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 02/04/2008 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 February 4, 2008 9:48 AM

Since I started reading your stuff, which incidentally is when you started the Fallujah reporting, I have gone from sheer excitement at finding legitimate, independent, and in-depth reporting, to cynicism and stand-offishness about your optimistic view, and now to my own (guarded) optimism. It is going well, and we are pursuing the right path now. The reason I have had such difficulty accepting the good news is because of how hard it is to move beyond the mistakes of the past. Only one year ago, Fallujah was an entirely different place, and I saw first-hand what I thought to be the wrong way of dealing with it. But things have clearly changed.

The reason I bring this up is because I believe this is the dilemma many Americans face right now. Things were not going well, for a long time, and inexcusable mistakes were made, and the natural reaction is to demand accountability and dwell on it. Which makes it difficult to move past this, especially in such a polarizing political climate. There will never be accountability for the mistakes of the past, and its time to start embracing the successes without dwelling on those mistakes.

I also want to thank you for once again highlighting the disconnect between places like Baharia and Camp Fallujah (Salsa night every Thursday!) and the shitholes that the few men live in who are actually doing the work and living among the people - a tenet of any counterinsurgency strategy.

Posted by: PDK Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 10:55 AM

Good work Michael. I don't always agree with your conclusions but I trust your honesty and direct reporting.

One thing I'd like to comment on is that such comments as "....inexcusable mistakes were made..." and so forth all seem to be relying on 20/20 hindsight.

My wife (the teacher) made the comment to me about the Anbar Awakening that there was probably no way it could have happened earlier than it did for we had not reached "the teachable moment".

The Iraqis had to come around on their own terms and it's most likely that nothing we could have done would have made that happen faster.

On another point, I've heard the meme that we shouldn't have disbanded the Iraqi Army over and over. But I've also heard that it self-destructed with everyone pretty much up and leaving on their own. What's your take Michael?

Posted by: AlanC Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 1:11 PM

Great work Michael, let me second what AlanC said about his wife's comment. In retrospect, ripping the lid of such a brutalized society, it is almost impossible to think there would not have been such clashes. And add to that an al Qaeda element hinging its' success on civil war, it was inevitable. We should have seen it coming. However, that doesn't mean that it could have been avoided. And that doesn't mean it will last forever. The insurgency burned itself out in three years, aided by Marines and soldiers killing a lot of al Qaeda, and things will only get better I believe. I do not expect an al Qaeda Tet offensive because al Qaeda has largely abandoned Iraq and are now going after the Pakistani government. There are of course challenges ahead, but this war is close to over.

Posted by: Ray robison Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 2:28 PM

You know, I agree with you about the Anbar Awakening, but we could have had much broader support from the population much quicker. How many years was the administration and military elite in denial about there being an insurgency? And then after acknowledging this, how much was it allowed to blossom while they said the cliches we all know about like "last throes?" And finally, how long did it take after this to shift the broader strategy toward an actual counterinsurgency, led by Gen. Petraus? Too long, is all I'm saying. Should have happened quicker. But it didn't, and my point is to move on from the old arguments and embrace the current situation, which, ironically is the opposite of what I'm doing right now... Yeah there's 20/20 hindsight, but there's also a whole mess of experts and men on the ground saying one thing, and then implementing the opposite policy or strategy... Aw nuts I'm doing it again...

The strides made over the past year in Fallujah and elsewhere are incredible. Just incredible. And that's all I have to say about that.

Posted by: PDK Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 3:06 PM


Perhaps this article by Fred Barnes can answer some of your questions:

Posted by: Dogwood Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 5:03 PM

That's an excellent article, thanks. Can't argue with the success of the surge, but I think its also important to note that places like Fallujah which have been completely turned around are virtually untouched by the surge. The counterinsurgency strategy is to credit there.

What I did find kind of funny in that article is how it frames Gen. Petraus' strategy as new and revolutionary...imagine...fighting an insurgency with a counterinsurgency...revolutionary indeed.

Posted by: PDK Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 5:58 PM

This reminds me a lot of the SF with the Mike forces and the Marines "guarding the rice" in Vietnam.

Unfortunately we failed those people. I hope we don't fail these.

Posted by: John Dunshee Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 11:16 PM

You know, I agree with you about the Anbar Awakening, but we could have had much broader support from the population much quicker.

I don't know if that is true.

A big part of why the Anbar tribes turned against al Qaeda is because of how al Qaeda treated the locals when they were in charge. The tribes eventually came to see the American military, which had enforced UN sanctions and conducted airstrikes in Iraq for a decade, as less evil than muslims waging jihad against infidel occupiers.

I dunno what life under al Qaeda was like, but it must have sucked mightily for the Iraqis to decide that having the US military in charge was the better deal.

Posted by: rosignol Author Profile Page at February 4, 2008 11:37 PM

Can't argue with the success of the surge, but I think its also important to note that places like Fallujah which have been completely turned around are virtually untouched by the surge. The counterinsurgency strategy is to credit there.

Not sure I agree with this. The whole point of the surge was to put enough troops on the ground to effectively implement a counterinsurgency strategy throughout the country.

The surge and counterinsurgency are two sides of the same coin, no pun intended.

Posted by: Dogwood Author Profile Page at February 5, 2008 3:32 AM

Yet Another Great MJT Post.

I don't believe more troops, earlier, would have resulted in the Iraqi based Anbar Awakening as soon. (But it also might not have been so needed.)

Only Iraqis can win in Iraq -- the main US job should always have been to find the most worthy: competent, non-corrupt, non-authoritarian/ sharing of power Leaders to support.
Unfortunately, "competent" usually goes along with corrupt and authoritarian. See the Iraqi General/ Colonel that Michael Yon wrote about last year, competent AND corrupt, getting arrested by US forces.

"Disbanding" the Army wasn't the problem, failing to re-hire them as local para-military units for local security, with Pay, was the problem.

Bremer's failure to allow local elections for local leaders, using ration cards, was a problem.

Failure to institute a Shared Iraqi Oil Trust, modeled on Alaska's Oil Fund, to give out cash to Iraqi citizens was a problem -- the majority Shia are still having trouble doing the right thing on this issue. (Maybe cash to those who register to vote, and cash to those who vote? As well as Jury Duty?)

Mistakes are "Inexcusable" only if there are clear examples of doing it right to use as a model -- there are no examples of creating an Arab (+Kurd) Shia & Sunni Muslim Democratic country.

Given the clear example of (Dem Party) Congressional votes to stop funding US Allies in Vietnam, leading to N. Viet commie victory (& Killing Fields), the only inexcusable mistake now is to stop support too soon.

Style question for Michael: I did have to read one sentence twice: >>"A Marine unit I embedded with spent a few hours at the Fenton station in the Dubat neighborhood on the way to the main Fallujah station downtown." << Perhaps the first time in 4 years, I'm sure you could have written this more clearly.

You're such a pleasure, as well as so interesting, to read.

Have you met any Muslims who are not pro-life?

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Author Profile Page at February 5, 2008 4:10 AM

Dogwood: The whole point of the surge was to put enough troops on the ground to effectively implement a counterinsurgency strategy throughout the country.

Yes, that's right.

Tom: Perhaps the first time in 4 years, I'm sure you could have written this more clearly.


Have you met any Muslims who are not pro-life?

That question isn't relevent in the Middle East. No one talks about abortion over there one way or the other.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at February 5, 2008 12:21 PM

It's good that things are finally going well in Iraq. I do think that the planners of the war and occupation did make one very, very bad mistake... one extreme error in judgement and one that is really not excusable: They provided Americans with the Best Possible Scenario and refused to talk about any other possible outcomes with Iraq.

We can quote Rumsfeld, and Cheney and all the rest, but that really doesn't matter now. Hopefully, in the future, Americans will be less trusting of their governments claims of flower throwing and slam dunks... or maybe they will trust... but verify. ;-)

Because of that one huge failure, I think Americans were given wrong expectations and weren't psychologically prepared for the mess we've had for the past several years. If Americans had been told "This is gonna be hard, there will be insurgencies, it will be messy, we may be there for years." then I really think most Americans would have stayed firm behind the war even in 2004-2005. Instead, it was obvious that the Administration had provided us with a very optimistic scenario, one that we now know the military leaders didn't find likely... and the American people lost their confidence in the Administration.

I was surprised at how closely this war has mirrored what military people predicted before the invasion. several years, insurgencies that would require lots of troops to pacify... the only good surprise was the AQ in Iraq idiots that sent half the insurgency screaming to our side. Otherwise, if the Administration would have treated the American people like adults, I think we would have considered the war as being right where we expected.

Thanks, for the reporting Michael, as always You are The Man ;-)

(Go McCain!)

Posted by: dclydew Author Profile Page at February 6, 2008 8:30 AM

How bored are Marines in Iraq now?

Asking cab drivers to tell the insurgents where they are...


Hat Tip: Marine Corps Gazette

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at February 8, 2008 12:06 AM
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Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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