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Hope for Iraq’s Meanest City By: Michael J. Totten
City Journal | Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Fallujah is strange, sullen, wild-eyed, badass, and just plain mean,” writes Bing West in his 2005 war chronicle No True Glory. “Fallujans don’t like strangers, which includes anyone not homebred. Wear lipstick or Western-style long hair, sip a beer or listen to an American CD, and you risk the whip or a beating.” Fallujah has been Iraq’s bad-boy city since at least the time of the British in Mesopotamia; even then, travelers were warned to stay out. More recently, Saddam Hussein recruited some of his regime’s most ruthless officers from Fallujah. Even though it was a quieter city than most in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, with less looting than in Baghdad and a staunchly pro-American mayor, the Americans should have known that Fallujah was trouble.

But they didn’t, and so they were unprepared when a rogues’ gallery of Islamists, Baathists, and garden-variety malcontents made the city the launching pad for an Iraqi insurgency. The Fallujans who embraced the insurgency were foolhardy, too: had they looked at what similarly-minded Islamist totalitarians had done to Afghanistan, they would have known what hell awaited them at the insurgents’ hands. General David Petraeus’s radical transformation of counterinsurgency tactics has come at just the right time: the overwhelming majority of Fallujans, deciding that America is the lesser of evils, have now aligned themselves with the Marines and the American-backed city government.

The insurgency arose in Fallujah before spreading to the rest of the country. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the insurgents—now on the run elsewhere in Iraq—were first beaten here in the City of Mosques.

Fallujah’s darkest period began with a lynching. Simmering resentment against the American presence exploded in an orgy of violence on March 31, 2004, when a Fallujah mob murdered four security contractors from the Blackwater corporation, mutilated them, and strung them up from a bridge. The following month, the U.S. Army and Marines stormed in. But concerned that their assault would provoke violent reactions across Iraq—as, in fact, it did—the Americans retreated, their mission unfinished, and insurgents seized power. Taliban-style rule had come to Iraq.

Some of the insurgents were just looking for work and shot at Americans because they were paid to do so. Many were born and raised in Fallujah, where the Saddam regime had fed them a steady diet of anti-American propaganda; they sprouted from the same supply of xenophobic fanatics that had given the city its cruel reputation for so many decades. But the fiercest insurgents were foreigners—freelance jihadists from the Persian Gulf states, North Africa, and the Levant, some of them veterans of battles in Chechnya and Afghanistan—who formed the Iraqi franchise of the same international terrorist group that had slammed hijacked jetliners into lower Manhattan skyscrapers. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq made the two biggest cities in Anbar Province—Fallujah and nearby Ramadi, Anbar’s capital—the heartland of its so-called Islamic State in Iraq.

Many Fallujans initially welcomed Zarqawi and his lieutenants as liberators from the hated American occupiers. But the jihadists did not fight for freedom. Instead, they enforced Islamic law at the point of a gun, establishing a brand of fascism even worse than Saddam’s. They murdered sheikhs who opposed them. They butchered their enemies’ families, burning women alive and slashing children’s throats with kitchen knives, and massacred other families for accepting food from Marines. City officials, tribal authorities, police officers—anyone in charge of anything was targeted for destruction.

Though al-Qaida in Iraq is Sunni, like most Fallujans, its totalitarian vision has little in common with Islam as traditionally practiced in this conservative city. It was even more at odds with local secular habits and conventions. The new order in the city under American occupation, the old order under Saddam Hussein, and the ancient tribal system that predated both—all had to be swept away. “When you join the al-Qaida organization, the first thing you have to do is get your parents far away from your mind,” an Iraqi police officer tells me. “There can be nothing else. Only the al-Qaida organization. Your kids, your wife, your family, your parents, your beliefs—all have to be out.”

Realizing that Fallujah had become the terror capital of Iraq, the U.S. began a second assault in November 2004, seven months after its initial failure to secure the city. Ordered out of the way by the American military, civilians abandoned Fallujah en masse, reducing a city of more than 400,000 people to a booby-trapped, explosives-laced ghost town inhabited only by the insurgents. Then the United States Army and Marine Corps crashed through the walls and fought the massive battle that today even Americans call al-Fajr (“Dawn”). The insurgents lost, but their loss wasn’t decisive, and they continued to tear the city apart for almost three years, terrorizing the civilians who trickled back slowly after the battle.

By late 2006, Fallujans had had enough. Though they had little desire to be ruled, or even nurtured into self-rule, by Americans, the jihadist alternative was clearly worse. So Fallujah formed an alliance with its former enemies. The alliance is one of convenience, and possibly temporary, but it was forged in the crucible of the most wrenching catastrophe Fallujans have experienced in living memory.

“I feel the sincerity in the American support for the Iraqi civilians here,” one Fallujah resident tells me. “I am not going to say any bad words about Americans. I can feel that they really are eager to accomplish that mission.” Another Fallujan, who works as a money changer, says, “It will be a shame on all of us if the terrorists ever come back.” “Security is good now because the coalition, Iraqi army, and Iraqi police all work together,” says a third, the owner of a fruit stand. “One hand does not clap.”

Fallujans say this sort of thing partly because they believe it and partly because the provincial tribal leadership ordered them to switch sides. In late 2006, pro-American and antiterrorist sheikhs formed a movement called Sahawa al-Anbar—the Anbar Awakening—to purge the killers from their lands. Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, then head of the movement’s Anbar Salvation Council, made himself al-Qaida’s most formidable enemy in the province. “Our American friends had not understood us when they came,” he said to Johns Hopkins University professor Fouad Ajami. “They were proud, stubborn people and so were we. They worked with the opportunists, now they have turned to the tribes, and this is as it should be. The tribes hate religious parties and religious fakers.” He was assassinated by a car bomb in front of his house in September 2007, almost certainly at al-Qaida’s hands. His brother Ahmed took over his leadership role, vowing “to fight al-Qaida until the last child in Anbar.” By then, every tribal leader in Anbar Province had flipped to the American side.

While the Americans were lucky, in a sense, that al-Qaida so thoroughly disgusted the locals, Petraeus’s strategy shift was crucial to beating the insurgents. Before the surge, American counterinsurgency had followed a “light footprint” model: soldiers and Marines lived on large protected bases and did everything they could to avoid casualties. The thinking was that this approach not only protected the military; it also would keep Iraqis from viewing Americans as oppressive occupiers. But the light footprint model prevented the Americans from providing security to Iraqis, who began to regard their occupiers as not merely oppressive but incompetent to boot.

When Petraeus surged additional troops to Iraq in January 2007, the light footprint model was replaced with aggressive counterinsurgency operations that, perhaps counterintuitively, prioritized the protection of local civilians over American forces. “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be,” the Army’s new manual on counterinsurgency (COIN) explains. “Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained. . . . These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.”

Marines also took the vitally important step of surrounding Fallujah with concrete Jersey and Texas barriers, forcing all incoming traffic through checkpoints manned by Iraqi police. Visitors can no longer bring cars in—they must park outside the city limits and walk—and locals must affix resident stickers to their windshields. High-tech surveillance cameras monitor every inch of ground outside the city; sneaking in is impossible. Perhaps it’s fitting that people as provincial and, yes, medieval-minded as these live in a place that’s as fortified as a thirteenth-century walled city. (One Marine describes Fallujah as “the Dark Ages with TVs and cars”; Iraqis think of this city in much the same way.) The barriers were unattractive, so the Americans hired local artists to paint murals on them depicting ancient Iraqi and Babylonian architecture, idyllic scenes from greener countries than this, and messages of peace in Arabic calligraphy.

The barriers don’t merely separate the city from the rest of Iraq; they separate neighborhoods from one another, too. Foot traffic isn’t restricted, but no one can drive from one neighborhood to another without passing through a police checkpoint. Smuggling weapons is prohibitively difficult. Anyone who wants to set off a car bomb will have to content himself with blowing up his own neighborhood. The walls are a major hassle, but they work. Fallujah’s most recent car bomb exploded last July.

The barriers also divide each section of the city into intimately patrollable precincts. Inside these precincts, U.S. Marines and Iraqi police have forged a straightforward agreement with civilians: we’ll keep you safe if you identify insurgents and lead us to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and weapons caches. Americans no longer patrol in Humvees, as they did at the peak of the insurgency. Instead, the Marines have embedded themselves, so to speak, in Fallujah’s communities. They have transformed large rented houses into Joint Security Stations that look and feel like low-budget university co-ops, where they share sleeping quarters, eating areas, movie rooms, and makeshift gyms with Iraqi police. They live together, work together, study Arabic and English together, and, above all, patrol their own neighborhoods together.

This is community policing, Fallujah-style, and so far it has been even more effective than similar programs that have turned around rough U.S. neighborhoods, from New York City to Portland, Oregon. “I swear I don’t mean to sound like I’m selling something,” Sergeant Stephen Deboard says. “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.”

The results of the Anbar Awakening and the surge are plain to see. Since the Fifth Marine Regiment’s Third Battalion rotated into Fallujah in September 2007, not a single American has been wounded there, let alone killed. Hardly anyone even tries to start a fight now. A handful of people have taken potshots at Marines; one man threw a hand grenade in the neighborhood of Dubat; some fool blew himself up when the Iraqi police caught him planting an IED outside their station. Every attack has been ineffective. Of all Iraq’s cities, only nearby Ramadi has experienced so many dramatic changes in so short a time.

“We tell people that we’re in our third battle of Fallujah,” First Lieutenant Barry Edwards says. “The first was in April of 2004, which we’ll say we lost. November and December of 2004 we kicked ass. Al-Qaida in Iraq promised televisions, refrigerators, and air conditioners, [but] they did not follow through. Al-Qaida was trying to take them back in time. The Iraqis said, ‘No, we don’t want that. We want televisions, refrigerators, and air conditioners.’ They see that the Americans are actually providing [these things]. We tell them that if they can get their area secure, we can get their televisions and air conditioners running and keep them running. When they see that, things improve.”

Edwards concludes: “Now we’re in that third battle where if we back off right now, al-Qaida in Iraq will get back in. They want Fallujah. It’s a very influential city. It’s their first clubhouse.”

Not that Fallujah is going to be a tourist attraction anytime soon. There was a time when Fallujah had money, and most of its houses are still quite large, even in the poor neighborhoods. Almost all of them are riddled with bullet holes, however, and some are just piles of rubble. The city’s infrastructure is shot, half of its citizens are unemployed, most factories in its industrial district are closed, and its culture is stultifying even by conservative Arab standards. I see no bookstores, libraries, movie theaters, or any other public place where culture can be consumed, but only a handful of men-only cafés serving identical glasses of tea. Alcohol isn’t banned, but only one bar exists in all of Fallujah, and it’s on a side street next to a boarded-up building. The owner doesn’t dare put up a sign.

During the war years, nobody collected the city’s trash, and though today the Marines pay residents to pick it up, the city is hardly clean. It takes a long time to dispose of the buildup and to persuade residents to change their habits and use the new dumpsters, so every street has at least one dump site, and the market smells of rotting garbage and urine. Raw sewage contaminates the streets, too. Unlike some Iraqi cities, Fallujah once had a functioning sewer system, but the insurgents, bent on demonstrating the Americans’ inability to govern, destroyed it by burying hundreds of IEDs beneath the streets and detonating them. A new water-treatment plant is under construction in the poorer southern district, but it will likely take years to rebuild the whole system, even if the war doesn’t start again.

Most vexing, in a country where ferociously hot summers make sleep all but impossible without air conditioning, is the chronic electricity shortage. Traditional houses were relatively easy to cool even in August, but Iraq’s modern homes are designed to be cooled with electrical power. If the power is out or intermittent, they’re heat traps for six months of the year—a fact that the insurgents understood well when they paid desperately poor people to sabotage the electrical grid. Now that the power lines are finally secure, Fallujah’s electrical system is slowly being repaired, and residents get about 12 hours of electricity per day—an improvement, but still brutal during the summer. The outdated system is a rat’s nest of sizzling wires and overloaded transformers even when it is not being messed with; what it really needs is to be scrapped and rebuilt from scratch.

It’s difficult to assess how truly safe Fallujah is. On the one hand, while I didn’t meet any Marines who were nervous, all agreed that I would be crazy to walk the streets without their protection, since a small number of insurgents still lurk in the alleys. I’d be kidnapped or worse if I were unlucky enough to stumble on them alone.

On the other hand, Fallujah isn’t as mean as you might expect—at least not on the surface. I walked the streets every day on foot patrols with Marines, and the only mobs we ran into were screaming children who wanted candy, soccer balls, high-fives, and photographs. Whatever Iraqi adults think of Americans, the kids really like us. But the adults seem friendly, too, or indifferent at worst. Several Marines told me that they had met Iraqis who said, in no uncertain terms, that Americans should leave their country at once, but it never happened while I was around. True, Arabs are among the world’s most polite and hospitable people, so it would be a mistake to assume that Fallujans are pro-American just because they smile and wave. But in 2006, no one smiled or waved at Americans here. Marines could count themselves lucky if a cold shoulder was the worst they got.

“This summer, I ate dinner just about every week out there,” Lieutenant Edwards tells me. “I couldn’t have done that back in January [2007]. They would have lit my tail up. You couldn’t go 100 feet down the road that runs along the river without getting hit by an IED. Now we can sit there with our flak jackets and helmets off like we’re sitting right here. . . . We go out there and eat chow with the guys who were shooting at us a year ago.”

Corporal Brandon Koch, who fought in al-Fajr, has returned to Fallujah after three years’ absence. “It’s good to see the city the way it is and to go to the same neighborhoods,” he says. “They’re so much cleaner now. These people are doing things on their own; they’re taking care of their own stuff. When I was here three years ago, I never would have imagined this place would ever be like it is now.”

When American soldiers and Marines abandoned Fallujah in the early days of the war, it wasn’t ready to stand on its own. They are more certain now that their work is nearly finished. Almost all the Army soldiers have left, and only two jobs remain for the Marines: repairing the city; and preparing the local authorities to stand on their own. Most of the effort goes into training the Iraqi police.

Fallujah’s police officers are in better shape than their Baghdad counterparts and in much better shape than they were themselves even six months ago. But they still have a long way to go. Incompetence and corruption are nearly intractable. In the end, only their teachers may save them from their enemies and from themselves. “They will emulate you, gents,” one American officer says to his men. “They. Will. Emulate you. Why? Because we came over here twice and kicked their ass. I do not trust the Iraqi police today. Our job is to get them up to speed. They don’t need to be up to the standard of Americans. But they do need to be better than they are right now.”

Lieutenant Brandon Pearson, a military police officer and the resident expert in American criminal justice, takes a longer view than anyone else I speak with. “They’re where the American police were in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” he says. And though the Iraqis are more than a century behind, they are teachable. “Different agencies within the Marine Corps. . . . . train the Iraqi police,” Captain Stewart Glenn explains. “How to conduct a proper investigation, CSI-type stuff, how to be a detective. We can train the Iraqis on how to handle their weapons properly, how to load and shoot their weapon straight, how to move out in the city, how to enter a house. Some of the Rule of Law things: for example, when you go into someone’s house it is not okay to go to the refrigerator and take a drink. You know what I mean? It’s a small thing, but they’re supposed to be the good guys and this is how good guys act. It’s small stuff, and I know it isn’t real sexy. But this is how you make a country.”

“We’ve already seen a pretty significant difference,” Specialist Brian Henderson says. “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.”

I sit in on a training class in the town of Karmah, an area on Fallujah’s outskirts that was pacified even more recently than the city proper. First Lieutenant Eric Montgomery is lecturing Iraqi police officers about the high standards expected of them, focusing specifically on the proper rules of engagement, the Law of Armed Conflict, and the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. “If they become like a police state, people are not going to support them,” he tells me afterward. “If we can get them not to beat detainees, that’s a big step.”

No one knows how seriously the Iraqis will adhere to such basic principles after the Americans leave. Every one of them grew up in the shadow of Saddam Hussein; none was exposed to international ethical standards of policing and warfare until now; a civilized police force is an alien concept to them. “These guys aren’t the sharpest tools in the drawer,” a trainer says quietly to me after Montgomery’s lecture is finished. “Well,” I say, “hopefully some of it sticks.” Some of it does, he tells me.

Not all the Marines would agree. “Some of them will tell you straight up that the only reason they are Iraqi police officers is because it pays better than the insurgency,” one sergeant says. “I hear that and I want to say, ‘Hold this guy while I go get my pistol.’ ”

Optimists slightly outnumber the pessimists, though. “The Iraqi police can almost take over now,” says Lieutenant Eric Laughlin. And Lieutenant A. J. DeSantis asks me rhetorically: “Are they Marines? No, but they don’t need to be. They just need to keep their neighborhood safe.”

The Marines’ final mission is the make-or-break mission, as all final missions must be. The third battle for Fallujah will be decisive. After the Americans leave, the city will either transform into a relatively normal backwater that nobody cares about—or tear itself apart. If Fallujah goes, Baghdad goes, and all of Iraq will follow.

A particularly pessimistic U.S. Army soldier I met in Baghdad last summer was certain that Iraq was too dysfunctional and conflict-wracked to be fixed. “Iraq will always be Iraq,” he said. Fallujah, likewise, will always be Fallujah, and Fallujah is difficult. One should not be starry-eyed at the news of its “awakening.” The city is not yet open to the modern world and its ways. Only desperate necessity granted Americans a reprieve from Fallujah’s fear and loathing of outsiders, which it now directs at Baghdad, Iraq as a whole, and international as well as local jihadism. Jeffersonian democracy has not yet come to the banks of the Euphrates.

That said, Fallujah’s worst days are likely behind it. “The al-Qaida leadership outside dumped huge amounts of money and people and arms into Anbar Province,” says Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman, who oversees an area just north of Ramadi. “They poured everything they had into this place. The battle against Americans in Anbar became their most important fight in the world. And they lost.”


Michael J. Totten is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. Visit his Web site at http://michaeltotten.blogspot.com.


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