Handing Off a War, Dispatches From Iraq

In Fallujah, Resistance Is Futile
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 23 2006 6:42 AM

Handing Off a War, Dispatches From Iraq

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FALLUJAH, Iraq—In 2004, the two most savage battles of the Iraq war raged up and down the streets and inside the 30,000 concrete buildings of Fallujah. Located on the Euphrates River 30 miles west of Baghdad, Fallujah gained a truculent, xenophobic reputation decades before Saddam came to power. Poorly educated and inclined toward banditry, its tribes quarreled among themselves and harassed outsiders.

After the killing and lynching of four American contractors on Fallujah's main street in April 2004, the White House ordered the Marines to seize the city and then, under international pressure sparked by an outraged Arab press, ordered the Marines to withdraw. When the city fell under the control of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida, the Marines attacked again in November. The result was a bloody urban brawl that included more than 200 firefights inside houses.

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Over 18,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Altogether, 160 Americans died in Fallujah, as well as thousands of insurgents. After the battle, all military-aged males were issued identification cards and an earthen berm was thrown up around the city, limiting entrance to seven checkpoints.

By May 2006, Fallujah was secure by Iraqi standards, with an explosion on the roads or a shooting every few days. Inside the city, two Iraqi army battalions provided security. The city council insisted that the checkpoints on the outskirts remain in place. An hour's delay was preferable to the return of the al-Qaida days. Thanks to the comparative stability, there was new construction on every street.

In Fallujah, the U.S. presence had dropped from 12 rifle companies in 2004 to one company from the 25th Marine Regiment. When I accompanied an evening patrol through a tough district called the Pizza Slice, I saw the ever-present tension for myself.

The Marines walked with confidence among the hundreds of Sunni men clustered on sidewalks outside small shops that offered fresh vegetables, lamb, cell phones, satellite dishes, refrigerators, generators, and trinkets. Two years ago, these same stores sold AK-47s, grenades, and machine guns. Some of the shopkeepers were probably once arms merchants. The Marines affected an insouciant air, cheerfully uttering repeated salaams while scanning the rooftops for snipers. The Iraqis responded reluctantly, replying without a smile or turning away.

Sam, the Iraqi translator for the Marines, kept his pistol with the strap unhooked, a sign that he did not like the area. Every U.S. battalion has two or three "Sams"—Iraqis paid $1,100 a month who would be killed on the spot if they were caught outside American lines. It's rare to meet a U.S. battalion or company commander on patrol who does not have a trusted translator standing beside him. Sam has worked in Fallujah for 30 months with a succession of American units, and, like most translators, he is suspicious, if not downright cynical, of his fellow Iraqis.

"Sure, you see big changes. Things are better," he said. "The Iraqi army is here now. They're Shiites. When the Marines leave, there'll be fighting."

The patrol passed an Iraqi police station that was surrounded by barbed wire. The police stood around outside, some talking with shopkeepers. None of the police greeted the passing Marines.

"We get along great with the Iraqi army,'" Maj. Vaughn Ward said. "The police won't have anything to do with us. Some of them are dirty. Any cop that helps us would get popped when he walked home."

The local Sunni police live in the city and, unlike many of the Shiite soldiers, are acceptable to the residents. Insurgents and spies have infiltrated the police. They do not arrest insurgents or report the locations of IEDs. They survive by going along.

In 2005, the main training effort was to partner Iraqi battalions with U.S. battalions and advisers. 2006 was declared "the year of the police," which meant ridding the police of any members loyal to Shiite militias or to the Sunni insurgents and unifying the force as a reliable tool of the elected government. Achieving that goal when uniformed officers go home alone at night is a huge challenge.

Even in Fallujah, though, cracks were showing in the insurgent front. City officials vigorously deny any connection to al-Qaida. The city's fifth mayor in four years, Sheik Hamas Abbas, fought off an assassin whom he described as a foreigner. The police chief arrested three terrorists from Saudi Arabia.

The day after walking through the souk, I attended a city council meeting in the same room where, two years earlier, I had watched Marine commander Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis prepare for a gunbattle. Sure enough, as soon as I walked inside, the sharp staccato of small-arms fire reverberated outside. Marines grabbed their weapons and rushed out.

Three Iraqis lay dead in the street. Lance Cpl. Kenneth W. Boss was patting his armored vest, looking for a bullet wound. Boss had been driving by City Hall in a Humvee when a four-door maroon Opel suddenly stopped in front of him and tried to back up.

"I'm going to shake down that car," Boss said to his turret gunner. "Cover me."

Boss hopped out and approached the car. When he was 2 feet away, the driver pointed a pistol at him and fired through the window of the car door. Hit square in the chest, Boss fell backward thinking, I'm dead, but it doesn't hurt. Lying on his back, he fired three bullets into the car door. The turret gunner, Lance Cpl. David Pelaez, was also firing on semi-automatic, as the Humvee driver, Lance Cpl. Omare Beury, leaped out and began shooting.

Hit repeatedly, the Iraqi driver slumped sideways as his passenger slipped out the other door, ran to a taxi stopped nearby, and jerked open the door as a shield. Struck in the head, he fell. In the fusillade, the taxi driver was also killed.

Boss, a reservist who was a New York City cop, was wearing a GPS receiver strapped to the outside of his armored vest. He found the bullet lodged in the armored plate above his heart. "That's the second time someone's looked me in the eyes and tried to kill me," Boss said. "Once in New York and now in Fallujah."

Inside City Hall, 16 Iraqi council members and three Iraqi army officers sat at the conference table. Along the walls sat another dozen Iraqis and a half-dozen Americans. The meeting was in Arabic, with simultaneous translation into English.

The meeting had been called because 70 recruits from Fallujah had deserted from the Iraqi army, demanding that they be allowed to serve in Fallujah and nowhere else. Mayor Abbas, a voluble orator, supported the deserters, insisting that Sunnis from Fallujah must replace the Shiite soldiers in the city. The exasperated Iraqi army officers yelled back, insisting that Iraq needed one unified army, not sectarian militias. The mayor would not back down, and round and round they went, getting nowhere.

Finally, Col. Larry Nicholson, who commands the 5th Marine Regiment, recommended that they defer debate until a high-level delegation from Baghdad arrived a few days later. The council agreed.

Irreverent and appreciative of the ironies of life, Nicholson, who was severely wounded in Fallujah in 2004, is the classic crusty Marine commander. A week earlier, the mayor had declared with a flourish that he was a member of the resistance.

"So, what are you resisting?" an unimpressed Nicholson asked. "The money we bring? The support we give you in Baghdad? The security we bring? Our division motto is 'No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy.' "In Fallujah's case, Mr. Mayor, we're your only friend."

Debris from a bomb that killed 14 in Fallujah. Click image to expand.
Debris from a bomb that killed 14 in Fallujah

The next morning, I was talking with Cpl. Boss when there was a loud explosion outside. We rushed out to a scene of carnage. Hundreds of civilians had been lined up in response to a police recruiting campaign. A suicide bomber had joined the line and blown 14 of his fellow Arabs to smithereens. Some policemen were loading bodies into their pickup trucks while others walked around with plastic bags, picking up fragments. A water truck was summoned to wash away the blood.

The police declined the Marines' offer of assistance. Then small-arms fire broke out down an alley and the police reconsidered. When the Marines rushed forward, the shooting stopped.

The Marines drove away, discussing the irony among themselves. On several occasions, police stopped civilian traffic before an IED went off near a Humvee, or warned pedestrians to steer clear before snipers shot at Americans, or took away the bodies of insurgents. They were obviously on good terms with local insurgent gangs. Yet others—probably al-Qaida—still killed police officers. The Marines wanted the police to take a stand, which they would not do even as they were being killed.

The next day, a bevy of Iraqi and American generals flew in from Baghdad to meet with the city council. The mayor welcomed them by declaring that Fallujah's residents were unable to travel to Baghdad. Besides the three permanent checkpoints outside the capital, there were often two mobile checkpoints manned by police who called anyone from Fallujah a "Saddamist." Everyone is afraid of the police. The mayor himself would not risk going to Baghdad. The only solution, he said, is to recruit an army battalion from inside the city, separate from the predominantly Shiite battalions.

Lt. Gen. Maseer al-Qdeidi, from the Ministry of Defense, patiently explained that a united Iraq needs a Shiite-Sunni army, not separate militias. Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, commander of the Multi-National Force, reminded the mayor that the creation of a "Fallujah Brigade" in 2004 had been a disaster, with Zarqawi and the extremists taking over. Surely the mayor did not want that. Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, in charge of the military training in Iraq, told the mayor that sectarian armies would tear the country apart and leave Fallujah with no support and no resources. It was not going to happen. Period.

After the meeting broke up, the mayor turned to Weston and Nicholson. "How'd I do?" "Terrible," they replied. "You overplayed your hand. You'd better get some of those Fallujah deserters back into the Iraqi battalions if you want to be a player. Get onboard the train; don't stand in front of it." The mayor said he'd consider it.

Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written six books about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. 

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