FALLUJAH, Iraq—When the Marines attacked through the city last November, inside 17 houses they found cell blocks, chains screwed into ceilings, blood-splattered walls, the flags and propaganda pamphlets of al-Qaida, and mutilated corpses. There was a torture house somewhere on just about every major street—one torture chamber for every 20,000 residents. The Jolan district in the northeast, where the 2nd Iraqi Battalion was working, had the highest incidence of intimidation and killings.
South of the Jolan, Lt. Col. Joseph L'Etoile and his 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment were steadily making inroads against the insurgent infrastructure. Why? Because the leaders of some of the major tribes were turning against the terrorists. While Capt. Juwad of the 2nd Iraqi Battalion was rousting the residents of Jolan Park after an assassination, L'Etoile had agreed to an evening meeting with two prominent sheiks who had a deal to propose.
After dark, L'Etoile drove down the main highway, passing the mural painted a year earlier in memory of Lt. Col. Suleiman. Suleiman had commanded an ill-trained city militia. He had insisted that his soldiers and their families could not survive in the city if they cooperated with the Americans or with the Iraqi officials in Baghdad. Instead, he set out alone to restore order. When the insurgents attacked the Iraqi police station, he fought them off. Then Abu Musad al-Zarqawi moved into town and persuaded the head local insurgent, a radical imam named Janabi, to lure Suleiman to a mosque. Trusting the imam, Suleiman came to the mosque without his soldiers. He was seized, tortured, and killed, and the next day the terrorists passed out videotapes of his agonizing death. When the city was taken in November, the Marines and the Iraqi army painted a mural on a concrete slab on the main highway, saying: "Suleiman—Hero of Iraq."
Any resident cooperating with the government of Iraq or with the Americans was risking death. Yet two prominent sheiks had asked for a private meeting. L'Etoile arrived at their compound. No lights were turned on in the section. Through their night-vision goggles, the Marines saw Iraqis at different posts, tracking their movements.
Once they were inside the compound, a few lights came on. Colorful rugs were spread on a close-cropped lawn between two attractive villas. On the porch of one villa sat a small BMW roadster wrapped in a dust cover. Two sheiks greeted L'Etiole. Both asked that their names not be revealed. One was reed-thin, a constant smoker in his late 60s. The other, with more ample girth, was in his 50s and got right down to business. "One of the Farhan brothers is out of jail," he said. "I saw him in the market last week."
L'Etoile was not happy with the news. It had taken months to arrest several Iraqis implicated in the murder of Col. Suleiman. Now one of them had been released.
"A suicide bomber tried to kill my older brother [a respected tribal elder]," Sheik Ample continued. "They killed my son with a bomb last Tuesday. Do you know why? Because my older brother urged that we vote for the constitution and not be left out of this new government."
"There are two groups of insurgents," the sheik said, "and they are feuding. Omar Hamady of the Albugutna tribe left a bomb on the road near the farm of Khasem Muhna of the Ju Ara tribe. He wanted you Marines to arrest Muhna. Then Hamady would have no rival on this side of the river."
L'Etioile's translator, Darawan Faris, drew a sketch to confirm where the two insurgents lived. Faris, a fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had applied for American citizenship after serving for years with the Marines in Iraq. He knew most of the sheiks and city elders. The names of these insurgents were new to him. They were outsiders, from south of the Euphrates.
"They will try to kill us again," the other sheik said. "A bomber will drive up at night and blow us up here when we are sleeping."
L'Etioile looked around. A car bomb would smash the small compound, which seemed so tranquil and secluded, to bits. "We have patrols," he assured the sheiks.
"No," they said. "You cannot be here all the time. Our sons and nephews live here. We want you to stay away. Give us a piece of paper so we can be armed."
L'Etioile considered the request. Unlike in the rest of Iraq, no one in Fallujah is permitted keep a weapon in his house. L'Etoile asked how many permits were needed. When the sheiks gave a number, he agreed.
The sheik asked for one more thing—a pass for his older brother. It was dangerous to wait in the long lines entering the city.
"He will have a card equivalent to mine," L'Etioile said. "All my Marines will be informed. He will not wait wherever he goes."
The gesture of respect and understanding pleased the two sheiks, and the meeting ended with a meal of chicken and saffron-flavored rice.
Driving without lights back to his base, L'Etioile explained his reasoning.
"The irahibeen [terrorists] killed the sheik's son and tried to kill his brother," he said. "It makes sense to let them protect themselves. They didn't ask for an excessive number of weapon permits. That means the enemy isn't numerous—and the sheiks know who they are."
"That bit about not waiting in line,'" Sgt. Maj. Michael Barrett said, "reminded me of Sonny in The Godfather waiting at the toll booth and getting shot."
Later, Faris, the translator, picked up on the analogy to the Mafia. Like many of the translators with American infantry battalions on the front lines, Faris was wary, if not totally cynical, about grand concepts for dealing with the insurgency.
"Let me tell you something," he said to a journalist. "Here in Fallujah we're up against some hard guys. There's a lot of talk about the vote and that stuff, but those guys aren't going to change. They're feared. They like that power. We could offer them a good job on construction, paying even better money, and they'd never take it. Never. They're killers. They're gunmen. That's what they are, and that's how they see themselves."
October marks the 30th month American soldiers have been in Fallujah. Now there is far less violence and open fighting. The three major changes are the aggressive morale of the Iraqi soldiers, the absence of the toughest terrorists who were led by Zarqawi, and the emerging hostility between a major tribe and the local insurgents.
On the other hand, it is the insurgents and not the police who control the market places, and the mostly Shiite soldiers of the Iraqi army don't feel welcome in the city. Intimidation and individual killings persist.
Rebuilding is everywhere. Electric power is fairly steady. There are far fewer improvised explosive devices. Iraqi army soldiers are patrolling, both with the Marines and on their own. A goodly percentage—perhaps 30 percent or more—of the 150,000 voting-age residents are expected to vote in mid-October. Even if most vote against the constitution, it will be a protest by the ballot and not the bullet. On balance, the city is much more secure than in the past.
What the city lacks is a Gary Cooper from High Noon. Col. Suleiman was a genuine hero and nationalist, a former combat leader from the Saddam era who decided that Fallujah would benefit by embracing the new Iraq. He opposed Zarqawi and he intensely disliked the jihadist zealotry of Janabi, the local imam. For that, he was tortured and executed. Now Fallujah is relatively secure, given the high number of American and Iraqi soldiers.
Killers still lurk in town, though. As yet, no Sunni Iraqi of Suleiman's stature and determination has stepped forward to say: This is my city, and I'm going to ensure it does not slip back into the hands of Islamist fundamentalists or foreign terrorists. Fallujah needs a tough, determined local leader.