FALLUJAH, Iraq— The four members of Mobile Training Team 7 were nibbling on MREs in their outpost in northwest Fallujah when the dull crump! alerted them.
"What'cha got?" 42-year-old Lt. Col. Jim MacVarish of Milton, Mass., barked over his handheld radio.
"RPG," Gunnery Sgt. Nathaniel Hill, 37, of Chicago replied over the radio. "The shooter's between your post and mine."
MacVarish and his team rushed south a few hundred meters and linked up with Hill, who was accompanied by Iraqi soldiers trotting out of the walled compound where they were living. The neighborhood was a tangle of trails and dirt roads meandering among palm groves and dozens of shoddy, one-story houses, each surrounded by sturdy square cement walls.
"The back blast was right outside our wire," Hill said, pointing at a house a stone's throw away.
A jundi—an Iraqi soldier—held down the outer coil of barbed wire, and a dozen Iraqis and their American advisers crossed a grassy field littered with the trunks of trees felled during the November battle. As they closed on the suspect house, Hill glanced at the sole palm tree left standing, then laughed and pointed. Embedded 10 feet up was an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade, the aluminum tail fins glistening. Several yards beyond stood the house where the Iraqi company was staying.
"That muj hit the only protection we had," Hill said.
The company commander, Capt. Khodar Juwad, banged on the rusty door in the courtyard wall, and a skinny middle-aged man tentatively peeked out. Juwad asked a few gentle questions, and then gestured for the soldiers to move on.
"He saw nothing," Juwad said. "He is very frightened."
"I'd be frightened too," Hill said. "Muj comes into my back yard, takes a shot at the jundis, and grabs a hat. If the old man IDs him, his buddies will come back and pop him. If he doesn't, the jundis might give him a rough time. They don't want their fort turned into a shooting gallery."
The jundis walked warily down the dusty trails among the houses, talking briefly to residents anxious to be elsewhere. A man in a yellow shirt vaguely described a black-clad figure running down the street. No rocket launcher was seen. Juwad thanked him and told him to move on.
"If the people help my soldiers, they get killed," said Juwad, who had served in Saddam's air force. "A taxi driver gave my soldiers a ride, and the irahibeen [terrorists] killed him. A soldier sneaked out to get a haircut before going on leave, and they shot him in the barbershop. Two shops sold us soda. They were told to close, and they did. People hide weapons for the irahibeen because they are afraid."
Juwad's battalion—the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Brigade—has been stationed in Fallujah for eight months, arriving after the main battle. At first, they were reluctant to venture out from their base except in huge numbers. The nearby Marines—Battalion 1/6—took an interest in the jundis and invited them on joint patrols. As the months passed, the jundis learned patrolling techniques and gained self-confidence. By September, they were patrolling on their own, sometimes accompanied by a few advisers. Battalion 1/6 had stepped back to a supporting role. Operations were laid out in a weekly joint meeting, with the Iraqis submitting, in Arabic, their operational orders, using the standard template employed by all U.S. Army and Marine infantry battalions.
A year was frittered away in training the Iraqi army because the administration violated unity of wartime command. The administration created a Coalition Provisional Authority that set policy and allocated money for the Iraqi security forces, while the U.S. military remained responsible for security on the ground until the Iraqis could take care of it themselves. That separation between authority and responsibility was corrected about a year ago. Currently, when an Iraqi battalion is finished with basic training and assigned to an area, it is linked to an American battalion for mentoring and to ensure it will not disintegrate when first experiencing combat.
Juwad's battalion has responsibility for northwest Fallujah, a sector called the Jolan. With its centuries-old souk, or marketplace, a twisting labyrinth of alleys and cluttered shops, the Jolan was infamous during 2004 as the lair of arch-terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Down the street from Juwad's makeshift fort stood the abandoned warehouse where in May 2004 Zarqawi had beheaded the easygoing Californian entrepreneur/adventurer Nicholas Berg. Zarqawi timed and videotaped the murder so that Al Jazeera television received the tape in time for its evening news.
The jundis are under no illusions about the attitudes of the Sunni residents of the Jolan. A year ago, about 5,000 Kurds, some of whom had lived in the Jolan for generations, were forced to flee for their lives when the Sunni fundamentalists temporarily ruled the city, Taliban-style. Practically all the jundis in Juwad's company are Shiites who feel unwelcome in the city.
Of the 140 jundis in Juwad's company, 10 are Kurds and the rest are Shiites from southern Iraq. The pay—$430 a month—is excellent by Iraqi standards. Juwad estimates he has 80 soldiers ready for duty on any given day. No one in the company lives anywhere near Fallujah. Taking leave and being away from the company on other duties is an elastic concept. Jundis come and go at times and in ways often mysterious to their advisers. When they want to go home for a week or so, they wear civilian clothes and hire taxis or hitch rides to Baghdad, where they disappear in the crowds and make their way from there. A recurrent request is for small pistols they can conceal in their waistbands, in case insurgents stop their bus or taxi.
Those present for duty in Fallujah perform the same tasks as the Marines—perimeter defense, checkpoint searches of vehicles and people, cordon and search of areas, residential patrols, and night raids aimed at specific individuals. In the estimation of the Marines, Juwad's troops are learning by on-the-job training. Their patrol techniques and aggressiveness are improving. But they have not been in a heavy or sustained firefight. Sooner or later, the Marines will leave and the city will see who has learned more—the insurgents or the soldiers in the new Iraqi army.