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Al Anbar Province, Iraq
I arrived at Camp Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar Province by Blackhawk at 4 a.m. on the morning of April 13. No sooner had I lain down in my bunk than I heard the "thump, thump, thump" of outgoing artillery, five rounds in all. I later learned they were illumination rounds, probably called in to light up the area around the Iraqi Army’s Observation Post 3 (OP3) in Karma, just northeast of Fallujah. It was, I was told, the largest enemy action in the area in the last eight months.
This was my second visit to Al Anbar, a hotbed of enemy activity that stretches out west of Baghdad all the way to the Syrian and Jordanian borders. It’s almost entirely Sunni and was heavily Baathist before Saddam’s overthrow, and it’s also the pipeline into Iraq for jihadists from the rest of the Islamic world. When I was in Camp Fallujah a year ago for about a week, I heard no outgoing fire, and there was no incoming fire. Ramadi, the reputed headquarters of al Qaeda in Iraq, remained wracked with violence, but Fallujah was a tame pussycat.
Now it has sprouted long nails and sharp teeth. Before I left the city and its environs, I would hear outgoing artillery on all three nights I spent time at Camp Fallujah, withstand a mortar attack on one of the small outposts I stayed at, and hear more firefights in the distance, either from the outposts or out on patrol, than I could count.
Did we seize Fallujah in November 2004 only to slowly cede it back to the enemy? And if so, what does it say about the "grab and hold" strategy underway to secure this huge Sunni province, without which the war cannot be won? Is the Iraqi Army (IA) that we are training up to the job? The answers are complex, and I often felt like each of the nine blind men grappling with the elephant – at one point feeling a trunk, at another the tail. But this is what I saw and heard.
MiTTs and the IA
I rotated among three different battalions of the Iraqi First Division based out of Camp India, just east of Fallujah. One was in Fallujah proper, one in Karma, and one at Camp India itself. All comprise both Iraqi Army soldiers and Americans. The IA recruits come here fresh from basic training (formerly a scant three weeks, but now eight) for further instruction in tracking down, detaining, and killing the enemy. The enemy is known by several nicknames including "Ali Baba," "Wahhabi" (the strict form of Islam to which many of the terrorists adhere), "the bad guys," and "Mooj," for mujahedeen.
The Americans attached to the Iraqi First Division are from the 80th Division, an Army Reserve unit based in Richmond, Virginia. They are not combat support – that comes from Marines at Camp Fallujah and various forward operating bases (or FOBs, which rhymes with "Rob") throughout the area. Rather, these soldiers form "Military Transition Teams," or MiTTs. They always accompany the IA on patrols and raids "outside the wire," as leaving the camp is called; their job is to transition the IA into an independent fighting force that eventually can operate with no American help. These MiTT units may have less than a dozen men in them, including a few Marines attached for extra firepower.
Normally, what the MiTTs are doing would be the job of the Army Special Forces, the vaunted Green Berets who performed so brilliantly in leading the Northern Alliance to victory in Afghanistan. But "we don’t have enough SF to do what we’re doing now, in the magnitude and at the pace we want to do this," explains Col. Thomas C. Greenwood. "We have over 50 adviser teams just in Al Anbar. You’d use up every Green Beret team in the world if you were to use just them." Greenwood, from the First Marine Expeditionary Force, is the assistant chief of staff for Marine advisers to all three branches of the Iraqi security forces: the army, the border forces, and the police.
How is the transition from U.S. forces to Iraqi Security Forces going in the Fallujah area? Judging by the amount of hostile activity, it might seem not very well. It’s unfair to say there’s constant fighting in the area, but when you hear several firefights in a day, you know it’s busy. On my second night in the area, at Second Battalion in Karma, I was enjoying a beautiful moonlit evening, watching the Iraqi soldiers excitedly prepare for the arrival of a captured suspect. Suddenly I heard the brat-brat-brat of machine gun fire perhaps two miles away. Then all hell broke loose out there. I listened for awhile, then went inside to find out what was happening. It wasn’t good.
The Iraqis pointing their rifles were guarding the bridge that was attacked by the 7 Mooj.
Seven insurgents had attacked a checkpoint at a vital bridge over the Euphrates that I would later visit. The IA were already jumpy from having three rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) fired at them earlier in the day, two of which hit the bridge. Now they were shooting back from both the bridge position and an upper floor of a building near the bridge where they had more soldiers stationed. At some point the insurgents slipped out, but in the meantime a Marine quick reaction force had arrived. The Marines, unfortunately, were unaware that there was an IA post on the bridge and took them under fire. The IA, paying no attention to the color of the Marine tracer rounds, assumed they were bad guys and fired back.
The commander of the unit I was embedded with, Maj. William Rummel, worked his walkie-talkie furiously to get both sides to cease fire. He succeeded just in time. The Marines, he later told the Iraqis, were about to call in a helicopter gunship to spray the bridge and probably rocket the building. Although about 2,000 rounds had been fired off (300 Marine, 1,700 Iraqi), nobody was hurt. That’s not particularly surprising. It’s not like in the movies where it usually only takes one or two rounds to bring down a soldier. Unless a good sniper is at work, it takes a lot of bullets to kill a man.
The next day, on a two-hour foot patrol, we heard another firefight and saw flares go up and smoke rising, though buildings blocked our view. Shortly after, I went back to Camp Fallujah to be handed over to another unit when our Humvee broke down. While we were waiting for it to be fixed, there was, again, the thumping of outgoing artillery.
This is a 122 mortar shell, such as the Mooj fired at us on two occasions when I was there.
Finally we got to Third Battalion at Camp India at 2 a.m. Exhausted, I fell asleep in seconds, only to be awakened by four large explosions that sounded awfully close. They were. The bad guys had hit us with 122-millimeter mortars, the largest size they normally use, and large they are (about 5 inches in diameter and a couple feet long). The shells flew over the tiny camp and landed just outside. It’s perhaps telling that I had heard enough gunfire in the past few days that I just rolled over and went back to sleep.
More encouraging was the response to an attack on Observation Post 3, which I visited two days after the attack. Manned by about 80 IA and three Marines, OP3 was stealthily enveloped on three sides by about 50 to 80 enemy firing from buildings that were anywhere from several hundred yards away to practically across the street. They attacked with RPGs and numerous light machine guns. The IA had nothing more than a few light machine guns and their AK-47 automatic rifles. (Their commanders are adamant that they need heavier weapons, especially large-caliber machine guns, but for various reasons the U.S. military isn’t ready to supply them yet.)
Machine gun position attacked at OP3.
Normally, both IA and American forces can get air support – helicopters or fighter-bombers – within 20 minutes, assuming there’s enough space between good guys and bad guys to prevent fratricide. Often there isn’t. Further, in what may have been a coordinated attack, fighting was raging in Ramadi at the same time and tying down air support. So the IA and the Marines had to hold on for 45 minutes for relief, in a war in which many firefights are over in just a few minutes. Finally, Marine quick reaction units arrived from two different directions only to find themselves under fire. But now the Iraqis and Americans switched to the offensive and got helicopter support.
For 17 hours they pursued the enemy through the city, killing 18 and taking prisoners. One IA officer was killed, a lieutenant, along with five Iraqi soldiers. Interestingly, that death was a source of pride and encouragement to the IA, in that the lieutenant died a hero—barking out orders with his dying breath. What could have been an absolute disaster became, in this war of small actions and small arms, a stunning success.
**Why the Increased Violence? **
And yet it must be reiterated that a year ago this area was quiet. Is beating off enemy attacks somehow better than not having them at all? It wouldn’t seem so unless you consider the major demographic changes during that time.
A year ago, residents had just started trickling back to their homes. Now the people have returned and, à la Mao Zedong’s rules for guerrilla warfare, have become "the sea" in which the enemy can swim. Further, shortly after the Battle of Fallujah in November 2004, U.S. troop strength in the area was somewhere north of 3,000 and was still high when I arrived in May 2005. Now it’s down to about 300, with a few thousand IA and IP (Iraqi Police) filling the vacuum. (Exact numbers are confidential.)
A warning to Americans that the Americans don’t take very seriously.
The enemy will and do attack the Marines. At Second Battalion in Karma, the unit proudly displays a sign reading: "Go out of our country saveges [sic]. If you don’t we shall kill you all because you are terrorists and killers." It’s signed "Islamic Resistance." But clearly, around Fallujah at least, they prefer Iraqi targets. Is that because the Iraqis are softer targets? Col. Greenwood says no. "I think the insurgents target the Iraqis not because they’re lesser fighters; I think it’s because they can have a huge psychological effect. Any small victory they score helps them. It puts a damper on recruiting and allows the local populace to see insurgents have strength." He also says the "increased spike in violence is an act of desperation," a last ditch effort to win before the coalition grows any stronger. But we’ve been hearing that "last ditch" stuff for the last couple of years, haven’t we?
I don’t doubt there’s truth to what Greenwood says, but it remains the case that the enemy needs softer targets. I watched a video of an attack on a Fallujah police station with a surrounding wall. The tape had fallen into coalition hands when the cameraman dropped his equipment and ran. The "actors" in the film were no more competent. One fired an RPG while running, making the odds of hitting the target slightly less than zero. Another was too scared to take the safety off his RPG and just stood there looking like an idiot. Another fired his light machine gun at a wall directly in front of him, while yet another kept tripping over the ammo belt that dangled from his machine gun and dragged on the ground. Others would simply hold their weapons above their head and fire over the wall. Yet they appeared to be taking almost no return fire from the police. They could have safely aimed their weapons, but made no effort to do so. All they got for their efforts was that most were captured after being identified from the film.
It also remains true that the IP and IA provide softer targets; they are not yet up to the job of defeating these Keystone Kop "warriors."
The police are still woefully undertrained and undermanned; they spend all too much time sitting in their reinforced stations and often require protection themselves. Infiltration also remains a problem, and there have been local reports of the police showing up at a firefight and for some reason the enemy won’t shoot at them. In other words, apparently they’ve cut a deal: "You leave us alone; we’ll leave you alone."
Iraqi soldier guards a street crossing.
The IA are clearly superior to the IP in terms of ability and weapons, yet the "jundi" (pronounced "joon-dee"), as the IA like to be called (although strictly speaking it refers to the low rank of private), simply lack the aggressiveness of American troops. While reports of individuals taking to their heels during a firefight are rare, the IA often seem to think that merely breaking off an enemy attack is the equivalent of victory.
I sat in an office with several IA who were in Saddam’s so-called "special forces" and with Maj. Rummel, as he displayed the patience of Job in repeatedly emphasizing the need to go after and kill the enemy. There was lots of nodding, but I saw no evidence he got his point across. I also questioned the IA commander at OP3 on this during an interview, asking more than once if he was ready to send his men out to kill rather than merely defend. He simply evaded my questions, although he did say there was a value in grabbing prisoners.
In addition to lack of aggressiveness, the IA seem incapable of exercising fire control. Even without being able to distinguish the sound of an American weapon from an Iraqi one, you can often tell the difference in an instant. The well-drilled Americans fire off short bursts; Iraqis just pull that trigger and hold it. This makes it almost impossible to aim. Guns pull up as you fire them, and before you know it you’re shooting at the clouds. It also wastes vast amounts of ammunition. (This is why, in the modern versions of the venerable M-16 rifle and its shorter M-4 counterpart, "full automatic" mode is mechanically limited to three-round bursts.)
On patrol with the IA in Fallujah, they repeatedly needed to be urged to fully perform their jobs, such as stopping suspicious cars and interrogating the passengers. (In Ramadi, where every daytime patrol is a matter of life and death, the IA performed considerably better and more autonomously.)
Everyone understands that the IA will never be up to the level of American soldiers. On the other hand, judging by the even more woeful performance of the enemy, they’ll hardly have to be. Further, there’s absolutely no evidence the insurgency is growing, while the IP and IA in Fallujah clearly are. In Al Anbar, as well as in Iraq as a whole, while it’s common to hear that time is on the side of the enemy, it’s really not.
"We only have about 3,000 IP now," says Greenwood, "but we expect to break the 10,000 point by next fall. They go to a police academy, we train them, give them gear, and give them leadership." Further, "we have about 18,000 Iraqi soldiers in Al Anbar and had only half of that last year." Nevertheless, Greenwood and others told me, it’s the Iraqi Police that will really make the difference. Just as the Marines are turning larger and larger swaths of Fallujah over to the Iraqi Army, the IA will one day have to start turning those areas over to the police. "A big challenge is building the Iraqi Army, but that’s not a permanent solution," says Greenwood. "Once the police network is up and operating, it’s the swan song for insurgents."
**Hearts, Minds, and High-Fives **
Handslaps and high-fives in the Fallujah slum of Nasser Wa’Salaam.
What about the "hearts and minds" aspect of the war? There was no place we patrolled where we didn’t at least collect prodigious amounts of smiles and greetings from both children and adults. A recon patrol through a Fallujah neighborhood known as Nasser Wa Salaam was instructive. Nasser Wa Salaam is like Sadr City in Baghdad – a ghetto into which Saddam herded the Shiites. But after decades of intermarriage, it’s now about 60/40 Shiite/Sunni. It’s basically an open-air toilet, with sewage collecting in large puddles. Fortunately for the residents, they don’t seem to know how poor they are, and when we came through they were all smiles.
Street urchins followed us around in packs, initially begging for "Choccolata" and money. "U.S. number one! George Bush number one! Choccolata?" On safer patrols, we might carry and hand out candy, but not on this one. We couldn’t afford distractions; an ace sniper was operating in the area. He’d already plugged several Marines, including one who was shot while lying prone, the best defensive position if you’re caught in the open – an incredible shot. "The round went into his neck and tore a path right into his lungs," a Marine told me, perhaps providing more of a forensics report than I needed.
Thumbs up and a "V" for victory for an American-Iraqi patrol.
So this time we told the kids, "No choccolata!" but they didn’t seem to care. They wanted high-fives, handshakes, head rubs, and conversation, notwithstanding that we barely knew anything they said. When I told them I was a reporter – "Izmi sahafi" – they kept demanding I take their photos. So I’d pretend, and they’d be delighted.
That was the happy side. On another patrol in an overwhelmingly Shiite section near Fallujah’s main market, I saw barriers placed across lesser streets. They might be rocks, large concrete pipes, or even just piles of trash. I asked about them. These people were exceptionally friendly to us, so clearly the barricades weren’t intended for Americans or IA. "They’re terrified of the insurgents," a soldier told me. The insurgents are lazy and don’t like to walk, so usually stopping their cars stops them. In any case, it prevents drive-by shootings.
But civilians are fair game for shootings, bombings, and intimidation. New structures such as schools and hospitals are regularly targeted by mortar and rocket attacks. Cell phone towers are blasted so that civilians can’t call in tips to American and Iraqi forces. In Ramadi, the bad guys waited until a hospital was 95 percent completed and then blew it up. Nobody had the heart to start over. As Col. Greenwood explains it, there are four phases to defeating the enemy. "You need security, then stability, then reconstruction, and finally prosperity in that order," he says. "We’re still somewhat between the first and second. The insurgent knows if he can keep us from devoting resources to the last two, ultimately you can’t win over the people – you’re just using their neighborhoods as a battleground."
Throughout much of the country, not just in Al Anbar, ambitious American programs of electrification and building are often crippled, in part by attacks, but mostly by fear of attacks, causing inordinate expenditures on security. A couple of insurgents with a couple of mortar rounds that widely miss their mark can nonetheless scare off construction crews. That was a tactic used to try to prevent the building of Camp India.
A Marine takes cover while on an ostensible raid in Nasser Wa’Salaam near Fallujah.
"Insurgents would fire mortars into the camp and invariably a sizable number [of workers] wouldn’t return the next day," Third Battalion commander Lt. Col. Doug Anderson told me. "They’d filter back, but you had significant delays as a result. The Iraqis went after one mortar team [with a patrol] and got it. That slowed the attacks. But workers died, workers were wounded, Iraqi soldiers were wounded." Nevertheless, said Anderson, "this camp was going to be built no matter what the insurgency wanted."
Ultimately the war isn’t going to be decided just by killing lots of bad guys, as important (and satisfying) as that can be. Guerrilla conflicts are political, and the best Iraqi commanders know that. One of them is the commander of First Division, who has so many names he simply goes by "General Abdullah." Iraqi commanders tend to talk in circles – one was a bigger gas bag than the Hindenburg – but Abdullah is relatively straightforward.
He complains that he’s outgunned by the bad guys. "My soldiers only have AKs and PKCs [light machine guns, essentially an AK-47 with extra kick], and my soldiers ask me why the Army has no heavy machine guns." But he’s delighted that his sector has recently been enlarged. "The men are proud that the Marines trust us to give us more space. We have informers, and because we have good relationships with people, we can do stuff the Marines can’t. But we can share information with Marines as well."
The dual patches are a strong symbol of US-Iraqi cooperation.
And he acknowledges that his troops can’t do it all. He believes the linchpin is a strong government. "The more the people trust the government, the easier my job becomes," he says. Or as Greenwood puts it, "I think we’re making progress, but what the American people have to understand is that insurgency is essentially a political contest between both sides competing for the popular will."
From Fallujah all the way west to the Syrian border, Abdullah acknowledges, there is much sympathy for the enemy and many hiding places, including farms and caves. "When there is a political solution with them," he says, "they will help stop the foreign guys."
It won’t be easy, but if it can be accomplished in Al Anbar it can be done anywhere. Says Greenwood, "One high-ranking Iraqi officer told me ’Al Anbar is worse than the devil!’" But Greenwood disarmed him. "I said with your help, we’re going to make it too nice for the devil to visit."