Black Iraq Humor

My sense of humor darkened considerably when I lived in Lebanon. Beirutis, especially, have learned to laugh at things that would make the average American suburbanite’s blood curdle. It’s a coping mechanism, and I acquired a bit of it myself.

Iraq does the same thing to people:

Hat tip: Patrick Lasswell in the comments.

Iraqi Civics and Car Bombs

Bill Ardolino has published the first installment in a four part series at the Long War Journal about Iraqi politics based on dozens of interviews with major players. In an email, he writes, “This first installment is like an 8th grade civics lesson about the Iraqi executive branch, “albeit some of the players have car bombs”:http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2008/02/inside_iraqi_politic.php.”

The Final Mission, Part II

IP Truck and Rubble Fallujah.jpg

FALLUJAH — The United States military plans to formally hand over Anbar Province to the Iraqis this spring because the insurgency truly is finished in that part of the country. Most Americans have heard about the success in this province by now, but few seem to be aware that the cities of Anbar were the scenes of the most ferocious fighting: Ramadi, Haditha, and — worst of all — Fallujah.

The Americans in Fallujah are focused now on what they expect to be their last mission: the training of the Iraqi Police to replace the Marines.

Optimism and cynicism exist side by side. All the Americans I spoke to said the Iraqi Police are improving. Most are cautiously optimistic about their ability to stand on their own — later. Hope comes naturally in Fallujah right now because even this place, of all places, is peaceful and quiet. But a substantial minority has serious reservations after spending some quality time with Iraqis.

“We should have just left Saddam in power,” said an MP from the Texas National Guard who did not want to be named. “That’s all these people understand.”

Fallujah is the heartland of Baath country. It’s the most aggressively Sunni Arab city in all of Iraq. Residents deny the insurgency once had a popular base of support, possibly to save face, but it did. Some Fallujans are Islamists, some were and still are disgruntled Baathists, and others just needed the money. Even some police officers were insurgents.

“Some of them will tell you straight up that the only reason they’re Iraqi Police officers is because it pays better than the insurgency,” Sergeant White said. “I hear that and I want to say Hold this guy while I go get my pistol.

“Some Neighborhood Watch guys were insurgents, too,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot said. “We know some of them by name. They were working for insurgents to get paid, not because they were jihadis. So we pay them more.”

“How do you feel about them?” I said.

“I sympathize with them,” he said. “If they’re shooting at me, it’s time for them to die. They aren’t my friends. But I can hang out with them and shoot the shit. We do try to be nice to them to make it harder for them to join another insurgency later. We don’t want them to get fired because they love the action and we don’t want them loose in circulation.”

“How many do you suppose were ideologically motivated?” I said. That’s a hard question to answer, but an officer who has been in Fallujah for months should have a better sense of it than I do.

“Only a very small percentage,” he said. “They wanted to be free, or employed, or they were there for the action. Not because they wanted to live under a religious tyranny. There are lots of mosques here, as you know, but very few people are in the mosques during prayer time.”

He could tell I was slightly skeptical. If what he said wasn’t true, though, in 2004, it certainly is in 2008. “The reason we’re winning isn’t because of the Marines,” he said. “We’ve done our part, but we’re winning because of our support from the Iraqi people.”


I sat down with three Police Transition Team members who work exclusively with the Iraqi Police.

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

Specialist Brian Henderson.jpg

Specialist Brian Henderson

“What’s the biggest challenge for you guys?” I said.

“The language barrier is tough,” Specialist Tomas Morales said. “They do want to learn. They want to get it right, and we want to help them get it right. But we only have one interpreter per squad, per fifteen guys.”

Specialist Tomas Morales.jpg

Specialist Tomas Morales

The shortage of interpreters also made it hard for me to interview Iraqis. Hardly any of them speak English, and it takes years of full-time intensive study and immersion to speak a dialect of Arabic well enough to conduct a professional interview.

An Iraqi Police officer asked me if he could borrow my pen while I was writing in my notebook. I thought he only needed it for a second, but he ran off when I handed it to him.

“You have to be careful with these guys,” Specialist Henderson said. “You’ll think they’re borrowing it, but you’ll never see it again.” He then gave me a weather-proof space pen so I could continue taking notes during our interview. The Iraqi Police officer returned a few moments later, handed my pen back, and flashed me a grin. They aren’t all liars and cheats.

“When I was in Ramadi a few months ago,” I said, “the Iraqi Police were having major logistics problems. The Americans were taking care of everything for them.”

“That’s one of the things we do here,” Specialist Alan Martin said. “This station is pretty well-established. Someone takes account of all their weapons. They had problems with Iraqi Police giving their weapons away to family members because they thought they were gifts. Same with vehicles and stuff like that. Now they’re keeping a count of them and making them sign for them, letting them know they’re accountable.”

Specialist Alan Martin.jpg

Specialist Alan Martin

“If you all left today,” I said, “could the Iraqi Police stand on their own?”

“I think this station [Khaderi] would last a while,” Specialist Henderson said, “but they need some supervision still. I know many of them who really don’t want us to leave.”

“Do any of them want you to leave?” I said.

“I don’t think…I think they’re just wanting to rely on themselves,” Specialist Morales said. “It’s like a pride thing. They don’t really want us to leave, but they want to be established on their own.”

The Police Transition Teams, which include Marines and members of the Texas National Guard, live and work in small Joint Security Stations with the Iraqis. They focus strictly on a single unit of Iraqi Police officers, and they’re responsible for security in only one small precinct of the city.

JSS Behind Barbed Wire Fallujah.jpg

Joint Security Station, Fallujah

“I swear I don’t mean to sound like I’m selling something,” Sergeant Stephen Deboard said when I first arrived in the city. “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.”

“I never thought I’d walk around a place like Fallujah and see people I know,” Sergeant Clarence Foster said and laughed.

The small stations are a world apart from Regiment headquarters at Camp Fallujah ten miles outside the city. Hardly anyone who lives and works at Camp Fallujah goes outside the wire on a regular basis.

Camp Fallujah doesn’t even feel like it’s in Iraq. Large military bases look and feel more like Planet Army. (In the case of Camp Fallujah, it’s more like Planet Marines.) There aren’t many Iraqis around, although there are some. Almost everyone is an American, and most of the buildings are temporary structures built by Americans, specifically by the Kellogg, Brown, and Root corporation (KBR).

Smoke Pit Fallujah.jpg

Outdoor smoking section

At night it’s dark at Camp Fallujah and Camp Baharia, a smaller but still large Marine base outside the city on a lake where Uday Hussein once had a retreat and a complex of night clubs. Lights are out after dark so insurgent mortar men will have a harder time aiming their rounds. Neither base comes under mortar fire these days, but the Marines feel no need to add street or stadium lights. Everyone carries small LED flashlights. At Camp Baharia, dim red lights are placed on objects such as trash cans so no one bumps into them in the dark.

The Joint Security Stations are converted houses. Marines and Iraqi Police officers live in them, and they feel as much like homes as military and police stations. The highest ranking officers are usually lieutenants, and lieutenants are the lowest ranking officers in the military. Joint Security Stations, then, have a much less formal feel than the large bases where battalion and regiment level officers live.

Playing Ball JSS Yard Fallujah.jpg

Marines and Iraqis play football and soccer in the back yard, watch movies on big screen TVs in the rec room, and lift weights in makeshift gyms with equipment they designed and built by hand. Weight-lifting isn’t the only thing that goes on in those gyms. “Marines are getting into Pilates now,” Lieutenant J.C. Davis told me. “That shit hurts. It just hurts.” Pilates, officially, is no longer girly.

Unfortunately, living in a rented house in Iraq means living like Iraqis. Dust and filth cover everything. If they have running water at all, it isn’t potable. Toilets don’t work properly, and the Marines rarely even attempt to use them. Have to take a piss? There’s a tube out back that leads into the ground. Solid waste goes somewhere else. Needless to say, no women live or work at these stations.

Piss Here Fallujah.jpg

Large bases are luxurious by comparison, even though the “standard of living” at these places is lower than the standard of living for poor Americans in public housing compounds in the slums. No one ever complains.

There is no garbage collection at a Joint Security Station, and there certainly isn’t a recycling program. All trash is tossed into a burn pit. These burn pits give off a strange sort of scorched-everything-at-the-same-time smell. It is neither pleasant nor foul, and it smells probably like a city would if it were on fire.

A Marine unit I embedded with spent a few hours at the Fenton station in the Dubat neighborhood on the way to the main Fallujah station downtown. Earlier in 2007, Fenton took a hit from a suicide dump truck bomb. The explosion blew gigantic concrete Texas barriers into the house. Amazingly, only the driver was killed.

JSS from Second Floor.jpg

Fenton Station, Dubat, Fallujah

We stopped there to have lunch and I gagged on my way into the kitchen.

“What is that smell?” I said. It was sour, horrendous, and so overwhelming I could taste it.

“Rat piss,” Sergeant Foster said.

“Oh, God,” I said, and bolted out the door back into the living room. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” he said.

“I killed twelve of them in here myself,” said another MP.

The others laughed at me, but at the same time they sympathized. They saw their own selves reflected back at them. All reacted the same way to their rodent-contaminated kitchen when they were first exposed to that nastiness. “You get used to it after a while.”

I did not stay for a while, so I did not get used to it. All of us had to retrieve our food from the fridge and use the microwave, but some of the MPs actually ate in that stench cloud.

The food at these stations in terrible. You’re lucky if you can scrounge up a microwaved hot pocket or pizza. Usually we were stuck with tasteless and over-cooked “chow” that spent months or even years in cardboard boxes stacked in the pantry. Steaks are cooked in boiling water. Corn is canned, of course. The macaroni and cheese is so bland it doesn’t even work as plausible comfort food. Barbecued ribs are all bone. Meals in Iraq prepared by Marines at small stations gave me a real appreciation for food served in the gigantic D-FACs (dining facilities) at Camp Fallujah. And food at Camp Fallujah’s D-FACs makes dinner at Denny’s sound awesome.

Embedding with the military in Baghdad and Fallujah has given me a deeper appreciation for the comforts of modern civilization than I would have thought possible when I was younger.

Mortar Damage Hallway Fallujah.jpg

At least the Marines’ food is hot. It wasn’t when they first got there.

“All we had was a bunch of stoner food,” Specialist Henderson said back at the Khaderi station. “When we first moved in we roughed it and lived off muffins, beef jerky, and Pop-Tarts. I’m never eating another Pop-Tart again.”

He and I ate microwaved pizza-stuffed Hot Pockets for lunch. They weren’t too bad. Another Marine ate two hamburger patties sandwiched between two Hot Pockets. Somehow he managed to get his mouth around all that. He washed it down with apple juice concentrate that was supposed to be diluted with water. Marines need their calories.

“There’s a lot of military houses in this part of the city,” Specialist Henderson said. “Lots of retired generals live around here. And there’s no bullet holes in these houses. Kinda makes you think, doesn’t it?”

The Askeri neighborhood next door took a heavier beating because it was the entry point for the battle of Al-Fajr in November, 2004.

“We couldn’t go ten feet in Askeri in 2005 without drawing all kinds of fire,” Specialist Kaufman told me. “There were blown up cars everywhere.”

Informal group interviews are hard to maintain because they often segue into small talk and jokey banter.

The Pringles Guy Fallujah.jpg

Specialist Kaufman

“My personal goal is to shave his mustache,” Specialist Henderson said about Specialist Kaufman, out of the blue and apropos of nothing. “He’s like the Pringle’s guy.” It’s a little bit harder to extract information from younger Marines, but they can be more fun to hang out with.

“I guarantee you that if I invented Pringles,” Specialist Kaufman said, “I wouldn’t be here.”

Pringles Guy.JPG

“I drew the Pringles man on the ladder up to his bunk,” Specialist Morales said and laughed.

“Now why don’t you suck my left nut and make my right nut jealous,” Specialist Kaufman said.

“Dude, what would you do if we shaved off half your mustache in your sleep?” Specialist Henderson said.

“I’d keep the other half,” Specialist Kaufman said.

Young Marines and soldiers almost constantly joke around with each other when they aren’t actively doing something that requires their complete attention. Occasionally they will even make fun of me when they sense that I won’t get offended and give them bad press to get back at them.

Some Marines and soldiers, though, just do not know what to make of me. At the small stations in the city I was almost always the only civilian around. Many did a double-take when they saw my civilians clothes. Who the heck’s this guy? Many seemed to think I only just arrived in Iraq and haven’t seen anything yet. After I returned from every foot patrol, somebody always asked me what I thought. “Kind of boring, actually,” I always said. “But that’s good.” The response was almost always the same: laughter. I think they expected me to be scared. Every civilian they talk to at home thinks Fallujah is scary. But I knew better because I was in Fallujah just like they were. There’s no war in Fallujah right now, and that’s obvious when you’re there for several weeks.

I met a young Marine named Austin — he did not give me his last name and he wasn’t wearing his rank — who grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. “I’m from a really bad area,” he said. “I didn’t even go outside when I was a kid. Fallujah is a lot better.” I believe that from what I’ve read about East St. Louis. “My Mom doesn’t believe me. She thinks I’m hiding stuff from her. So does my sister.”

Inside JSS from Stairs.jpg

Joint Security Station, Jbail, Fallujah

I cannot tell you how many times I heard someone say “Mom, it’s fine here,” when talking to family members back home on the phone. “Don’t believe everything you see on TV.”

One Marine I met, Lieutenant Brandon Pearson, was particularly suspicious of me when I showed up at his station. He asked me all kinds of questions as if I might be some kind of a threat. Who do you work for? What are you trying to do here, exactly? Are you authorized to just walk around without an escort?

Later he apologized for being standoffish and paranoid. “I don’t really know what I’m supposed to say to a reporter,” he said.

“You can say whatever you want,” I said. “Just don’t tell me anything classified.”

He didn’t say much on the record about the mission in Fallujah and preferred to talk of more personal matters. I liked him after he relaxed and was always happy to see him.

“I love fighting,” he said. “Well, not fighting exactly, at least not for its own sake. I mean, I love forcing an oppressor to stop abusing a defenseless person. I love telling him this isn’t your day. I can’t imagine anything more satisfying than that.”


I visited Lieutenant Nathan Bibler’s Joint Security Station on the very last day of its existence. The Marines and the Iraqis were moving out of their large rented house and into a brand-new station that had just been built by an international contracting company.

While his men loaded sandbags from the windows and roof onto a seven ton truck, he and I sat in his office and talked about his mission and the Iraqi Police.

Now You Cant See Me Fallujah.jpg

“Do you trust the police?” I said.

“I trust that they know what’s going on in Jbail,” he said, “and that they don’t want another insurgency from Al Qaeda or anyone else.”

Jbail is in the slums of Fallujah, in the southern part of the city. Many of Jbail’s residents worked in the industrial district, but most of the factories there haven’t re-opened.

“We talk to the police,” he continued, “and hang out with them downstairs sometimes. A lot of them have had family members killed by Al Qaeda, especially the chiefs. So I trust that they want security to be established.”

“How competent are they?” I said.

“They know the people really well,” he said.

“I mean, do they have good police skills?”

“That’s what the Police Transition Team is for,” he said. “The transition from para-military to police is what’s going on right now. When the Neighborhood Watch was created they were taking fire just like we were, if not more. Now that things have calmed down, we can focus on the finer details that come with police work like tactics and communication.”

Earlier in the afternoon I joined him and his men as they walked to a mukhtar’s house for a meeting. (Mukhtars are neighborhood representatives on Fallujah’s city council.) The mukhtar wasn’t at home, so we missed our meeting, but I got a tour of the neighborhood. The poorest section of town didn’t feel any more dangerous or sketchy than the nicer areas to the north of us.

“How dangerous would it be for me to walk around in Fallujah by myself?” I said. “How safe or stupid would that be?”

Men with Bicycles Fallujah.jpg

“It depends,” he said. “You could probably go right now and walk around this whole area today and be fine. You’d be approached a lot by the kids, but you’d be fine. But if you made that a pattern, I wouldn’t be comfortable with that. If Al Qaeda or someone is watching, you’d be in trouble. But I think if you did it once you would be fine. You see how people are.”

Yes, I see how people are. Every Iraqi I met in Fallujah who was not being held in a jail as a suspected terrorist was friendly, warm, and hospitable. It is, of course, possible that I’ve met someone who would kidnap me if I didn’t have the Marines as my bodyguards, but the overwhelming majority of Fallujans wouldn’t hurt me even if they do hate my guts for being American. The problem is that a small percentage would do something terrible if they could, and it’s impossible to know who to trust. I certainly shouldn’t trust the entire city of Fallujah and walk around loose on my own. I suspect the lieutenant is right, though, that if I did it once nothing would happen. The average Fallujan isn’t a terrorist. The whole city rose up as one against the head choppers and car bombers.

“There haven’t been many attacks in the city since we got here,” Lieutenant Bibler said. “We haven’t found a house with bomb-making materials in it.”

I should stress, here, that he is speaking specifically about his area of operations, which is the neighborhood of Jbail. It is the only part of Fallujah he has even seen.

“We haven’t found anyone taking pictures or anything like that,” he said. “Which is not what we expected coming in. It’s a tribute to the unit that was here before us, and to the Iraqis who have worked so hard to flush that stuff out. We’ve been patrolling hard since we got here. We found some weapons caches and explosives, but it was old. It had been there for a while.”

“Where do you find this stuff?” I said.

“In lots,” he said. “Buried under rubble.”

Lot with Rubble Fallujah.jpg

“How do you find it?” I said.

“People,” he said. “People call it in. The Iraqi Police have brought in most of it.”

“Do you know what the local people think of the Iraqi Police?” I said.

“They’re happy that the Iraqi Police are keeping security,” he said. “You know the Neighborhood Watch? They have to come from this neighborhood. We have 157 of them. So a lot of the community is a part of that effort. And you have their families that are connected. Iraqis have pretty big families. For the most part people are happy with it. Because security is so good we hear about issues like water, food, and electricity. A lot of people are looking forward to the barriers being lifted so they can drive freely without having to pass through the checkpoints.”

Each neighborhood is surrounded by concrete Jersey and Texas barriers that route all vehicle traffic through checkpoints. The walls are inconvenient and ugly, but they instantly put a stop to the car bombs.

Two Iraqi Cops South Fallujah.jpg

“The checkpoints work really well because the Iraqi Police check every vehicle, every ID,” he said. “It really stemmed the flow of weapons because they’re going to get caught with them.”

Lieutenant Bibler was moderately optimistic about Fallujah’s prospects. Just about every Marine I spoke to was surprised by the dramatic changes that had taken place. A full-blown revolution had taken place in the city. But I understand why some Marines have a dim view of the place. It’s hard, sometimes, to trust that a corrupt and incompetent police force will ever be able to hold off the likes of Al Qaeda without some assistance.

One problem with the Iraqi Police that gets almost no press at all is their immaturity. Someone remarked that “they act like a bunch of third graders,” and at times they really do. Every day Iraqi kids gave me the mister mister picture picture routine when they saw my camera. Some of the police officers did the same thing. They want me to take their picture over and over and over again. It’s a way for them to get fifteen seconds of fame. Other Iraqi Police officers don’t want me to take their picture because they are still afraid of the insurgents.

Three Kids Volleyball Game Fallujah.jpg

At the Amariyah station in a village just outside Fallujah, several Iraqi Police officers sat at the dispatcher’s desk and watched explicit pornography streamed over the Internet. They whooped and yelled and elbowed each other as the video kept getting racier. I sat at a desk just behind them and tried to work on an article, but they kept trying to get me to watch the video with them. Several Marines shared this work space with them, and all of them ignored the Iraqis and tried to pretend the porno show wasn’t on.

Marines aren’t even allowed to check their personal email accounts while they’re on duty, let alone watch explicit sex videos on a laptop.

Irony abounded in that room. Iraqi culture is orders of magnitude more sexually conservative than American culture. Soldiers and Marines in particular are not shy or restrained when it comes to sex (except when they have to be while they’re on deployment). Yet the Americans in the room were the ones put off by the pornography. It wasn’t because they are uptight or square, but because porn on the job could hardly be less professional. Some of them rightly accused the Iraqi men of hypocrisy. “How come you guys cover your women but you sit around all day looking at our women without any clothes on?”

I had to pick up my laptop and move. The movie wasn’t the only distraction. The Iraqi dispatcher’s radio was set to screaming loud, as they usually are. I don’t know how they can stand to listen to garbled Arabic and loud static squelches at such a high volume. Arabs (and also Israelis) have an entirely different definition of “loud.” Europeans who think Americans are too brash and loud ought to spend some time in the Middle East and hear what people really sound like when they have no volume control.

Sergeant White walked past the dispatchers and their porn and shook his head. Later, when we were outside the station and outside Iraqi earshot, he unloaded on them. He was not too impressed with the Iraqi Police in general. “They don’t show up for work,” he said. “They say I’ll be at work tomorrow, Inshallah. I call bullshit on that. I tell them that they made a decision not to come into work the night before and that they can’t blame that shit on God.”

Back at the main Fallujah police station, Sergeant Jason Howell pulled me aside.

“What are you hearing from Marines about the Iraqis?” he said.

“A whole range of opinion,” I said. “I probably hear the same things you hear. It doesn’t sound to me like anyone censors themselves.”

He clearly itched to say something to me on the record. I didn’t know if it would be good or if it would be bad, but that didn’t matter. I turned on my digital voice recorder.

“I was here before,” he said. “This isn’t my first time in the Fallujah area.”

I knew then that he would say something good about the Iraqi Police. He has seen progress with his own eyes on two separate deployments. All the returning veterans I spoke to were on average more optimistic than the others.

“You had the same job before?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I was actually in Karmah.”

Karmah is a smaller city about a ten minute drive (at normal speeds) from Fallujah toward Baghdad. It is sort of a suburb, and also a place unto itself. Every single Marine and MP said Karmah was more dangerous, violent, and terrifying than Fallujah. You probably have not even heard of it, but that’s because journalists have not spent any time there. From the point of view of Americans who fought there or elsewhere in Anbar, Karmah might as well have been Mordor.

Stairs Through Broken Doorway Fallujah.jpg

“I was on a Police Transition Team,” he said. “We were the first embedded Police Transition Team that had taken over that station. When we started we had around 65 Iraqi Police, and when we left we had 94. We made a lot of progress. We improved the station. The biggest success we had there was the relationship we built with the Iraqis. This mission revolves around the relationships and friendships we make with these guys. They won’t work with you unless they trust you, just like you won’t work with them unless you can trust them.”

“You trust them, then?” I said.

“I do,” he said. “In general. There will always be some questions, just like in a police department back in the States. You won’t necessarily know everybody that well or on that personal of a level. But in general I do trust these guys. They sacrifice a lot to do this job. I think a lot of people who come over here with a negative outlook, with a negative opinion of them, they don’t think about the fact that they aren’t just sacrificing their own safety. While they’re out here doing this job, nobody is at home protecting their families. Their families are at home unattended, and they are constantly threatened. Coalition forces are obviously high-priority targets for insurgents, but another major priority is these Iraqi Police officers and their families. They risk a lot. They put a lot on the line to do this job.”

“You seem more optimistic than some of the others I’ve talked to,” I said. “Is that because of your experience last year, or is there another reason?”

“I had a very good experience last year,” he said. “We were fully embedded. We lived in the police station 24/7. I didn’t leave the police station but once a month. I had very good relationships, life friendships, with my Iraqi Police officers. After all the things I’ve seen — they show you respect if you understand what they put themselves and their families through — it gives you a better understanding of the sacrifices they make.”

“What do you think about the Iraqi Police who used to be insurgents?” I said.

He laughed darkly. Clearly he did not want to talk about that.

“There’s some controversy about this in the U.S.,” I said. “A lot of people are worried that we are arming and training our enemies.”

“Obviously if that happens, that’s bad,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough so far not to have experienced that. I haven’t met any Iraqi Police who were insurgents. I’ve heard of that happening, but I haven’t had that experience.”

“What if you did meet an Iraqi Police officer who was an insurgent?” I said. “Would that bother you or be water under the bridge?”

Some Marines really don’t care all that much as long as the Iraqis are genuinely on their side now. So many Iraqis switched sides after the Anbar Awakening that it may not even be possible to keep all the former insurgents off the police force. It might even be foolish to try, just as dissolving the Iraqi Army after the invasion is widely seen now as a mistake.

“If that happened,” Sergeant Howell said, “there would have to be some questions and further investigation. All I can really say is, thank God I haven’t had to deal with that personally.”

“So, what kind of progress have you seen?” I said. “What were the Iraqi Police like when you first got here compared to what they’re like now?”

“A lot of the guys in general have a lot of experience,” he said. “Whether it’s policing or with tactics and patrolling operations. A lot these guys were in the Iraqi Army for 20 years before joining the police force. There are people who were medics in the Iraqi Army. And the good thing about these police stations is that the Iraqi Police are from the local towns. Soldiers in the Iraqi Army come from everywhere in the country. This really helps the Iraqi Police because they know all the civilians who live in these towns, just like in the small towns back home. This helps build trust between the police and the civilians.”

What about the progress he’s seen?

“When we first got to our station last year,” he said, “the Iraqi Police were not being paid, they weren’t really operating, and few bothered to show up for work. By the time we left, we had 94 Iraqi Police officers hired. They were being paid. They did show up for work. They were doing joint operations with us. They were going out into the city, talking to people. The biggest thing that helped us was our relationship with them, the friendships. I have to be honest with you. Saying goodbye was emotionally hard. I lived with these guys for seven months.”

He choked up a bit and had to look away for a moment, lost in memories of something deeply personal and trying hard not to cry.

IP with Keffiyeh Karmah.jpg

An Iraqi Police officer in Karmah

“I was lucky enough three weeks ago to go back to Karmah,” he said. “And my Iraqi Police were still there. The same guys from last year. As soon as I came into the station and they saw me they started jumping around, dancing, and yelling. There are four brothers who are all Iraqi Police at the Karmah station. One of the brothers was on shift when I got there. That night he called his brothers and his father — his father is a tribal leader — and they all came in the next day. Their father wanted to meet me.”

He choked up again slightly and had to pull himself together.

“So…there’s a lot more to this mission,” he said. “If you go into everything with an open mind, you can take so many lessons out of this mission, not only with community policing and the mission at hand, but with human relationships in general.”

Iraqi Police Nice Chair Fallujah.jpg

I had heard this before. Maybe the majority of Americans who work closely with Iraqis feel something like this. Despite the corruption. Despite the incompetence. Despite the fact that some of them act like a bunch of third graders. The Iraqis really are brave, even if it doesn’t look that way sometimes from far away or even up close. They are fighting for their survival in ways most Americans can barely imagine. Their enemy is possibly the most ferocious group of indigenous killers in the entire history of Mesopotamia.

“We’ve actually become attached to these people on a personal level,” Army Colonel John Charlton said to me in Ramadi last summer. “We feel responsible for their safety. We’re concerned about what will happen to our Iraqi friends if we don’t succeed in this country.”

To be continued…

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P.O. Box 312

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Many thanks in advance.

I Can’t Resist Asking…

After the Iowa caucus I asked readers who they would vote for if the choice were between that state’s winners. Barack Obama beat Mike Huckabee, 51 percent to 49 percent, among readers of this Web site.

Iowa likes losers, apparently. Let’s update the poll. Now who would you vote for, assuming the front-runners pull through?

Who will you vote for in November?
Hillary Clinton
John McCain
Write-in candidate
Cartoon character
No one
Free polls from Pollhost.com

Libya’s Son

Iraqi Police Colonel Jubair Rashid Naief claims Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam (whose name means Sword of Islam) is sponsoring a terrorist group in Northern Iraq called the Seifaddin Regiment. This group is allegedly responsible for recent attacks in Mosul that killed and wounded hundreds. The U.S. military so far has no comment on the accusation one way or another. I’ve never heard of this group and am not even convinced it exists. But U.S. military officials believe 19 percent of foreign terrorists in Iraq come from Libya.

Robert H. Reid wrote in “an Associated Press article”:http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080126/ap_on_re_mi_ea/iraq that Seif al-Islam “seems an unlikely figure as a sponsor of terrorism. Touted as a reformer, the younger Gadhafi has been reaching out to the West to soften Libya’s image and return it to the international mainstream.”

Yes, Seif al-Islam is touted as a reformer — by journalists. Perhaps naïve government officials also believe Seif al-Islam is a reformer. His father has certainly been given a pass in the last couple of years even though he barely deserves it — if he deserves it at all.

“I visited Libya as soon as the U.S. government lifted the travel ban”:http://www.laweekly.com/index3.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=12&Itemid=2&pop=1&page=0, after Qaddafi supposedly gave up his weapons of mass destruction program. (“Click here to see my photo gallery”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2004/11/a-photo-tour-of-libya.php.) It is by far the most oppressive country I have ever been to. Freedom House ranks it the most oppressive of all Arab countries, lower than even Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Qaddafi’s government structure is modeled after Nicolae Ceauşescu’s totalitarian regime in Romania. His state ideology, the unexportable “Third Universal Theory,” is a merger of The Communist Manifesto and the Koran. His own infamous manifesto, The Green Book, is a daft and sinister pseudo-intellectual excuse for his own absolute power. Don’t be fooled by Qaddafi’s court jester antics and buffoonish charisma. He is only funny and entertaining to watch from abroad. Libya is an Orwellian God-state with only Turkmenistan and North Korea as peers.

Of course none of this means Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam sponsors a terrorist group in Iraq. I really have no idea if that’s true or not. What I do know is that he is ideologically committed to preserving his father’s prison state system, and that he wants to export that system to as many countries as possible. Gullible diplomats and journalists may sincerely believe he’s a reformer, but a close look at his own statements proves that he’s lying when he passes himself off as moderate. And he is not even a good liar.

“Read the rest at Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/2137.

A Solution for Gaza

My next piece from Fallujah will be published later today. I just need to do one final edit and upload the photos.

In the meantime, David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy has “a great solution to the troubles in Gaza”:http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2008_01_20-2008_01_26.shtml#1201374079 that will never be implemented:

Sixty years ago, when Egypt occupied Gaza, it refused to grant the local Arab residents, native Gazans and refugees from the Arab-Israeli war of 1947-48, citizenship. Instead, the Egyptian government intentionally cut them off from Egypt and kept them impoverished, so they could be used as a propaganda and military weapon against Israel. When Israel took over Gaza in 1967, it opened the border with Israel, providing tens of thousands of jobs for Gazans, and increasing the standard of living there dramatically, albeit from very low levels. After a wave of suicide attacks from Gaza, Israel gradually closed off the border with Israel, and finally closed it off entirely when Hamas took over last year. Meanwhile, Israel no longer occupies Gaza, and the population has sunken back into abject poverty.

With the Gazan’s breach of the border with Egypt, and Egypt’s refusal to use force to seal the border, things have come full circle. It’s time to ask why Egypt, with 80 million people, can’t grant Gaza’s one million full Egyptian citizenship, and allow them to live in Sinai or even Cairo instead of being stuck in Gaza.

No matter what happens in the near future between the Palestinians and Israel, I doubt Israel will ever allow the reasonably free movement between Gaza and Israel that existed through the early 1990s. Giving the Gazans Egyptian citizenship, and making Egypt responsible for security in the area, would benefit Israel, the Gazans, and even Egypt itself, by destroying Hamas’s base (Hamas being affiliated with Egypt’s anti-government Muslim Brotherhood). It would also benefit the Palestinians in the West Bank, by allowing the more moderate residents there to reach an accommodation with Israel, perhaps in concert with Jordan.

It will never be implemented because it would require a more humane and intelligent world, and because it would threaten “the cause.” The well-being of the Palestinian people never really had much to do with that cause.

The Final Mission, Part I

Iraqi Police Covered Face Fallujah.jpg

FALLUJAH — At the end of 2006 there were 3,000 Marines in Fallujah. Despite what you might expect during a surge of troops to Iraq, that number has been reduced by 90 percent. All Iraqi Army soldiers have likewise redeployed from the city. A skeleton crew of a mere 250 Marines is all that remains as the United States wraps up its final mission in what was once Iraq’s most violent city.

“The Iraqi Police could almost take over now,” Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin told me. “Most logistics problems are slowly being resolved. My platoon will probably be the last one out here in the Jolan neighborhood.”

“The Iraqi Police in Jolan are very good,” Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot added. “Elsewhere in Fallujah they’re not as far along yet. Theoretically we could leave the area now and they would be okay, except they would run out of money.”

Lieutenant Eric Laughlin in Gear.jpg

Lieutenant Gary Laughlin

There’s more to the final mission than keeping the Iraqi Police solvent, however. The effort is focused on the Police Transition Teams. Their job is to train the Iraqi Police and bring them up to international standards so the locals can hold the city together after the last Americans leave.

A senior Marine officer whose name I didn’t catch grilled some of his men during a talk in the Camp Fallujah chow hall after dinner.

“Do you trust the Iraqi Police?” he said to a Marine who works on one of the teams.

“No, sir,” the Marine said without hesitation. That was the only acceptable answer. This was a test, not an inquiry.

“Why not?” the officer said.

“Because they’re not honest,” the Marine said.

“What do the Iraqi Police watch?” the officer said. “What are they looking at on a daily basis?”

“Us,” said several Marines in unison.

“They will emulate you, gents,” the officer said. “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.”

IP with Beret Fallujah.jpg

An Iraqi Police officer

The Marine Corps runs the American mission in Fallujah, but some of the Police Transition Team members are Military Police officers culled from the Texas National Guard. “We’re like the red-headed stepchild of units,” one MP told me. “We’re from different units from all over Texas, as well as from the Marine Corps.”

One Texas MP used to be a Marine. “I decided I would rather defend my state than my country,” he said jokingly. “But here I am, back in Iraq.”

After I adjusted my embed to focus specifically on Police Transition Teams, I was nearly surrounded by young men from Texas. Many seemed to instinctively understand Fallujah’s infamous provincial “nationalism.”

“Fallujah pride is like Texas pride,” I heard from several MPs who, unlike Iraqis from Baghdad, didn’t think that was a bad thing.

JSS Exterior Fallujah 1.jpg

A large rented house has been turned into a Joint Security Station where Marines and Iraqi Police live side by side

Training Iraqis to replace Marines is a lot less dangerous than fighting a war, but it’s harder. Every single American who has an opinion one way or the other told me it’s harder. Iraqis are not lumps of clay or blank slates that can be hand-molded or written on. They are human beings with their own complex history and culture. Most recently they were the brutally micromanaged subjects and enforcers of the regime of Saddam Hussein. If the Americans fail to field an effective local police force, Fallujah may go the way of Somalia and Gaza all over again — and next time there may be no one to save them.

Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t. The Iraqis lag more than a hundred years behind their teachers. “They’re where the American police were in the late 18th and 19th centuries,” said Lieutenant Brandon Pearson, a resident military expert in American Criminal Justice. You can see the broad outlines of what he means in old American movies that take place on the Western frontier in places with names like Dodge City. Corrupt lawmen sometimes sided with bad guys while decent, yet weak, lawmen cowered while gunslinging thugs terrorized entire communities.

Officially, on paper, the Americans don’t trust the Iraqis. The real world, though, is more complex and…human.

“I trust them little by little,” one MP said as he summed up the majority’s actual view. “I trust some of them, the ones we’re directly involved with and have a real relationship with. Otherwise, no, not really. I don’t. They act like a bunch of third graders, and there’s no telling what they do behind closed doors. But when we’re out there with them they’re doing their job, what they’re supposed to do.”

The Americans in Fallujah trust the Iraqi Police a lot more than the Iraqi Police trust the civilians. Many Iraqi Police officers still cover their faces when they go outside the station. They don’t want to be recognized, and therefore possibly targeted, by any remnants of the insurgency. Some Iraqi Police won’t let me take or publish their photographs.

IP Camo Face Covering Fallujah.jpg

The Iraqi Police are more trustworthy and competent than they used to be. Even the most jaded and pessimistic Marines admit that much, at least. But I do not trust them with my life. It’s not because I worry they might hurt me. In Fallujah that’s pretty unlikely. But I wouldn’t want them as bodyguards in a bad situation.

Sergeant Clarence Foster told me about one of those bad situations as we drank our morning coffee.

“Some bad guys kidnapped the daughter of a prominent city leader last night,” he said.

I sat upright. Whenever I started to think Fallujah might be a kinda sorta “safe” place to visit without armed protection, along came another reality check.

“They took her in the middle of the night,” he said.

“Are you going after them?” I said. “If so, I want to go with you.”

“We’re staying out of it,” he said. “The Iraqi Police are handling it. Last night they chased them into a cemetery. They let the girl go, but they’re still holed up out there.”

“This is still going on?” I said. “Right now?”

“Yeah,” he said.

For the briefest instant I considered going to the cemetery with the Iraqis, but it was a terrible idea.

“I guess I’m not going then,” I said. “I don’t trust them.”

“Well,” he said and laughed. “They aren’t as bad as they used to be. And besides, the kind of stuff that goes on here is like what happens in American cities now. It’s not like the old Fallujah.”

School Girls Fallujah.jpg

School girls walk home by themselves in Fallujah today. Not long ago, no children were out on the streets and schools were not even open.

Fallujah may not be like the old Fallujah. But it’s still Fallujah, and it always will be.


I sat down with Captain Stewart Glenn and his executive officer Lieutenant Chuck Miller at India Company’s train station FOB.

“The Marines were the catalyst for providing security,” Captain Glenn said. “But without guys like Colonel Faisal, Captain Jamal, and some of the leaders of the Iraqi Police, this never would have happened. The Marines had the idea of hiring a neighborhood watch, professionalizing the Iraqi Police, providing barriers so they have actual precincts which they can police. Instead of having a centralized station that goes out, they have small precincts now, which is also pretty common in the States. The idea came from the Marines, but the Iraqi Police took it, ran with it, and made it work.”

Blocked Road Fallujah.jpg

Precinct barriers force all vehicles through checkpoints that prevent weapons smuggling and car bombs

Walls Around Fallujah.jpg

Barriers around Fallujah’s city limits prevent weapons smuggling and car bombs from outside the city

Fallujah’s current policing model did come from the Marines, and it’s based loosely on the American idea of community policing. Mayor Tom Potter — of my hometown Portland, Oregon — is credited by many for coming up with this method when he was our chief of police. When police officers live and work in their own neighborhoods, have relationships with key neighbors, and patrol small beats on foot as well as anonymously in police cars, trust and community cooperation with law enforcement increases. Crime drops precipitously. Mayor Rudy Giuliani more famously implemented some of the same ideas in New York City.

Captain Glenn and his men are with the 3rd Battalion 5th Regiment which rotated into Fallujah at the end of the summer in 2007. They inherited the current strategy from the Marines who came before them, and who finished off the insurgency just as they were getting ready to leave.

“Some units will come in and scrap the old unit’s plan,” he said. “We actually built on it. We kept it because it works. We’re not getting shot at. We’re not getting blown up.”

“That’s good,” I said. “I don’t want to get blown up either.”

“Yeah,” Captain Glenn said. “It’s pretty awesome. But complacency, you’ve got to fight it. There’s nothing like getting shot at to make you more alert.”

Complacency Kills Flour Mill.jpg

“Have you been shot at at all?”

“We had one pot shot over at ECP 3,” he said. ECP is short for Entry Control Point. “The Marine that was sitting in the post heard a round snap over his head, saw a muzzle flash, then went and investigated. He found a 7.62 casing. And there was another report at another outpost where there was a similar incident. A pot shot at the post. Couldn’t see where it was coming from.”

“They found a hole in a sand bag to indicate that somebody did take a shot,” Lieutenant Miller said.

“But they never saw anybody or anything,” Captain Glenn said. “Those are the only two incidents of any kind of activity against coalition forces in our sector. It could be a wide variety of things. It could be somebody shooting a dog and the round…that does happen.”

“That’s something we have to be very aware of with the Iraqi Police sometimes,” Lieutenant Miller said. “You’ve been to Baghdad, I’m sure there’s a dog problem everywhere. Some people will just spray them with the AK-47 and Inshallah where the round goes.”

IP truck with mounted machine gun Fallujah.jpg

There is a dog problem in Baghdad, and it’s sad. Both Iraqis and Americans have been known to shoot dogs. They don’t do it because they’re sadistic killers, but because the dogs are wild. And the dogs are trouble. Lieutenant Miller is right, though, about the Iraqi Police. Their near-complete lack of muzzle discipline and careless aiming gets a lot of people hurt and even killed.

“We follow the safety rule of knowing our target and what lies beyond it,” Captain Glenn said. “They know their target, and that’s about it. Like when people shoot up in the air. It’s not a real popular thing to do in America. Gravity works. A bullet that goes up must come down.”

By all accounts the Iraqi Police in Fallujah are in much better shape than they were, even though they still have serious problems. Whether they’re ready for prime time or not, they’re being shoved into the role. Some Marines think they’re ready. Others do not. Captain Glenn and Lieutenant Miller are more optimistic than some.

“The Iraqi Police are really taking the lead at this point,” Captain Glenn said. “They have the capability and the initiative right now.”

“I think if we pulled back pretty substantially in a couple different places in the city,” Lieutenant Miller said, “you wouldn’t even know we were gone.”

“As a matter of fact,” Captain Glenn said, “the Iraqi Police used to want the Marines to lead. Now they say we’ve got it, we’ll call you if we need to.

“So what, exactly, is your purpose here then?” I said.

“Transition,” he said. “Getting the Iraqi Police to totally take the lead. They still have deficiencies when it comes to their logistics, when it comes to their administration, their communications. So we help facilitate that. We’re helping build the city government…well, not build it, but facilitate it. Because we do appear to be the power brokers, if you will, we push the government to do what it needs to do.”

Are you the power brokers in the city?” I said.

The Marines were the closest thing Fallujah had to a government for a while, but the mayor’s office, the city council, and the neighborhood leaders known as muktars are back in business again. No American is “mayor” of Fallujah anymore.

“I wouldn’t say we’re the power brokers,” Captain Glenn said. “But the Iraqis perceive that we are. I think the average Iraqi sees that we’re America and that we control everything here.”

Blue Bus Fallujah.jpg

“The average American probably sees it that way, as well,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “Well, they’re not dumb. They see that our country’s GDP is trillions of dollars. They know we have what they perceive to be the best medical care in the world. Most Americans don’t believe that, but the Iraqis do. So there’s a perception there.”

“It’s definitely a team effort,” Lieutenant Miller said. “We work hand in hand with them. It really feels like the Iraqi Police have the lead. They’re telling us we don’t have to go on as many patrols.”

“There are a lot of different agencies out there,” Captain Glenn said, “that help the Iraqi Police and help them to become a stronger force, different agencies within the Marines Corps like the Police Transition Teams. Their sole focus is the Iraqi Police. That’s what they do. They train the Iraqi Police. How to conduct a proper investigation, CSI type stuff. How to be a detective. Stuff that I’m not very well trained in. I can provide them with guidance and oversight, but these guys are the ones who are the experts in that. They get the training on how to do it. They’re MPs, they’re military policemen, so they understand the investigative process, they understand how to be a detective, they understand how to do CSI.”

“We can train the Iraqis on how to handle their weapons properly,” he continued, “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. That’s how we affect the police. They see us doing it right, and they really want to be like us. I’m not saying that to be egotistical. You’ll see them on patrol and they’ll start looking like Marines on a patrol. They’re not just walking on the street to walk on the street. They see the Marines, and the Marines are attentive, they’re looking down alleyways and making sure everything is clear, then pushing past it. That’s what we call a danger area.”

Marine Bullet Holes Fallujah.jpg

“They’ve also come a long way with the dispatching,” Lieutenant Miller said. “Within each precinct we have an operations center with an Iraqi Police side and a Marine side. They coordinate with each other when they go out so that when the Iraqi Police go out we know where they’re going and what they’re doing. And it’s just as important that we tell them what we’re doing because you don’t want an incident where somebody accidentally gets hurt.”

“Just like a patrol route,” Captain Glenn said. “You know, the Marines put up a patrol route and say this is where we’re going to go. It’s small stuff, and I know it isn’t real sexy. But this is how you make a country.”


One of the people who help the Marines train the Iraqis is, oddly enough, another Iraqi.

His semi-official name is Staff Sergeant Crash. He is not a Marine, so he is not really a staff sergeant. And his name, obviously, is not really Crash. He’s an Iraqi interpreter who goes by a pseudonym. And he is authorized to go by the rank of staff sergeant because he saved the life of a real American staff sergeant in battle.

Crash Fallujah.jpg


“I’ve been fighting with the Marines in Fallujah for three years,” he told me.

“Fighting?” I said. “You mean they let you carry a weapon?”

“Yeah,” he said and laughed as if my question was silly. But it was not a silly question. I had not yet met an Iraqi interpreter who is allowed to carry and fire a weapon in combat. None of the interpreters I met with Army were allowed to do that. The Marines, though, kept trying to put a gun in my hand, so it’s perhaps not surprising that they’re willing to let their most trusted Iraqi comrades shoot, too.

“Crash here just earned himself a Green Card,” one of his Marine buddies told me. “He’s moving to San Diego, and you know what he’s gonna do there? He’s going to boot camp. He’s going to become a Marine.”

“Congratulations,” I said to Crash. “You’ve been fighting with Americans for three years, and now you’re one of us.”

He grinned. “I won’t be able to wear the rank of staff sergeant anymore, though.”

“It’s going to be tough for him,” his buddy said, “when he goes to boot camp. Some drill sergeant who has never seen combat is going to call Crash here a stupid piece of shit after he fought with us for three years.”

Crash did not seem to mind, not really. He knows all about boot camp, and expects to rise in the ranks fairly quickly once he gets out.

For every unreliable Iraqi Police officer, there is someone like Crash around to balance him out. Or someone like Superkid.

“Superkid is just great,” Lieutenant Eric Laughlin said. “He’s the best. He’s been with us since 2006. He always wants to go on patrol with me. Some Iraqi Police officers are lazy and are only with us now because it’s safe to be with us now. Those who have been with us since 2004 are very brave, serious, and they really care about their city.”

Some Marines told me that Subzero is their favorite Iraqi. And he hasn’t been with the Marines since 2004 because he is only 18 years old.

Subzero was friendly to me…until I tried to take his picture.

“No, no, no, no, no!” he said and covered his face and turned away from me. After I put down my camera he made a slashing motion across his throat.

“Okay, okay,” I said. “I won’t take your picture.” But he doesn’t understand English and may not have understood.

I did have one blurry photograph that showed the back of Subzero’s head as he shadowboxed with Specialist Tomas Morales. He said it was okay if I published that one.

Morales and Subzero Fake Fist Fight.jpg

He avoided me after that, and I did not take it personally. My camera made him nervous. Iraqi Police and Iraqi interpreters go by names like Crash, Superkid, and Subzero because Al Qaeda hunts them and their families. Appearing in newspapers and, especially, on the Internet is risky and brings no reward. Some don’t worry about it, but many do.

I tried to take a photo of another Iraqi Police officer and he, like Subzero, yelled no and made a slashing motion across his throat with his finger. Then he pointed at a poster on the wall that showed the handsome face of another Iraqi Police officer. He made that slashing motion again after pointing at this picture. “Muj,” he said, which is short for mujahideen. “Muj finished him. No photo.”

If I understood him correctly, he meant that Al Qaeda killed this man because they recognized his face from the photograph that appeared around town.

Poster of Killed IP Fallujah.jpg

The Iraqi — who wished to remain anonymous — explained further in his limited English. “My father, brother, sister…” he said, then made that slashing motion again.

“His family was killed by Al Qaeda,” a Marine added helpfully. “They were killed because he’s a police officer.”

The Iraqi Police officer nodded.

“He went out all by himself and killed the people who did it,” the Marine said.

The officer nodded again.

Sometimes it’s hard to know who and what to believe in Iraq. The Marines seem to believe him, so maybe it’s true. But Iraqis exaggerate, and they do it a lot. Most exaggerate the crimes of their enemies, and many exaggerate their own heroism.

“If we hear that a woman was raped, maybe she was,” Captain Glenn said. “And maybe somebody just leered at her. We have to filter what they say through that understanding and investigate a bit further to find out what, in fact, actually happened. You are an American. I know how to listen to you and what you mean when you say something. If you tell me your wife was raped, we’ll go out right away and find the people who did it.”

Four Iraqi Police officers carried one of their injured comrades into the station. A bloody broken bone jutted out the top of his bare left foot. He winced severely and was obviously in a great deal of pain.

“Man, that’s gotta hurt,” I heard a Marine say. “I first thought it was another negligent discharge. The Iraqi Police shoot each other all the time.”

Almost every time I heard a random gun shot in Fallujah, some Marine or other told me not to worry about it. “It’s just the Iraqi Police,” was the typical answer. Either somebody fired off a round on accident, or somebody fired a shot in the air. It happened almost every day. It struck me that embedding with the Iraqi Police might be the most dangerous thing I could do in Fallujah. I was more likely to be shot by a police offier on accident than by an insurgent on purpose.


“Do you think what you’re doing now is still counterinsurgency?” I said to Lieutenant Andrew Macak. “Or have you moved on to something else?”

“I think today is a perfect example of what counterinsurgency actually is,” he said. “There is not a whole lot of kinetic activity day-to-day, even though that’s what people join the Marines Corps to do, for the sense of adventure and everything. That’s what we spend most of our time training for. A lot of that is gone now. But in order to be thorough and complete our mission, it’s very important for us to do what we’re doing right now.”

Counterinsurgency does involves kinetic warfare, of course. That’s what the Marines spent most of their time doing in Fallujah and the surrounding area. But the tail end of a successful counterinsurgency mission has to involve what is essentially peacekeeping and nation-building in order to first stabilize and then rebuild the devastated society.

“As far as enemy activity goes now,” Lieutenant Macak said, “it’s mostly handled by the Iraqi Security Forces. All we really do is cordon-and-knock raids. Actually, I shouldn’t even call them raids. Raids is more of a kinetic term. We’ll just cordon off an area and go in to see what’s going on. If there is an insurgent living in there, he probably won’t be sitting with his AK-47 ready. He’ll probably just play stupid like he doesn’t know what’s going on, that he doesn’t know what we’re talking about. They capitalize on the Marines lesser knowledge of who’s in the area, which is why we take Iraqi Police with us when we go out on patrol. The Iraqi Police officers know who is being deceptive.”

“Do you still do some of the cordon and knock raids?” I said. I was itching to see some kind of drama. Of course I’m relieved that I wasn’t in very much danger and that the war in that part of Iraq is effectively over, but it felt perversely unsatisfying at times, like I had arrived just a few months too late.

“We have a couple of target packages that we haven’t had a chance to get to yet,” he said.

I went on a another foot patrol from the Khaderi police station. Normally the Americans let the Iraqi Police lead the way to make it appear that they are in charge, even though they are not. But this patrol was at night.

“We go on joint patrols with the Iraqis during the day,” Second Lieutenant A.J. DeSantis said. “We go out alone after dark, though, because the Iraqis get lost.”

Night Shot Nondescript Fallujah.jpg

The Iraqis get lost at night. In their own city. Even though the Americans don’t.

I’ve been driven around by taxi drivers in Beirut who have the same problem. Beirut is small; it only takes an hour to walk from one end to the other. I can’t explain how a native Lebanese who works as a driver can get lost in such a small city and rely on me for directions. All I can say is that it happens once in a while, and I know several other Americans who say the same thing happens sometimes to them. Additionally, hardly anyone in the Middle East knows how to give directions. It’s just one of those things, and it probably isn’t fixable.

So we walked the streets at night by ourselves and left the Iraqis behind so they wouldn’t get lost. Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Supposedly the Iraqi Police at the Khaderi are good, and better than most in Fallujah. The station is clean and well-organized. Every American I spoke to said the Iraqis there were otherwise competent. “Are they Marines?” Lieutenant A.J. DeSantis asked me rhetorically. “No. But they don’t need to be. They just need to keep their neighborhood safe.” And besides, if a sense of direction and navigation is a cultural weakness for even otherwise competent police officers, the insurgents likely have the same problem for the same reasons.

The lieutenant walked alongside me. I snapped a few pictures in the dark.

Three Marines Night Fallujah.jpg

Somewhere off in the distance a dog barked.

“There’s some weird dogs in this country,” he said. “Not many Iraqis have dogs, you know. They think they’re unclean. Most of these dogs are wild. But there was this one dog that I’ll never forget. We heard it barking and growling at us from behind somebody’s wall. It was a pet or a guard dog or something, and it sounded enormous, vicious, and threatening. So we went to check it out. It was a guard dog, alright. But it was a Pomeranian. A goddamn Pomeranian guard dog. Strangest thing I’ve ever seen.”

I laughed and wasn’t sure what to make of that.

“So, what’s the purpose of this patrol, exactly?” I said. Not a lot happens on patrols in Fallujah anymore. I found them boring after a while. But the Marines and the Iraqi Police still patrol every part of the city on foot every day.

“To show a presence,” Lieutenant DeSantis said. “And to gather some intel. To see if some insurgents are around trying to plant IEDs. There’s one guy we’ve been looking for who drives a [redacted] vehicle, and we’ll detain him on sight if we can find him.”

We stopped and talked to several groups of Iraqis who were out at night minding their stores. The lieutenant asked if they had seen anything suspicious and if they had any complaints. The first group we spoke to was a family who ran a corner grocery. None said they had seen anything suspicious. All complained about the ongoing shortage of electricity. Two men also said they had seen nothing suspicious. They were primarily concerned with schools.

“We’re refurbishing the schools with our own money,” said one of the Iraqis.

The Marines listened respectfully and said they were trying to get more money from Baghdad.

“It costs 100 dollars for the vehicle sticker,” said another young Iraqi.

That is a scandal. Only residents of Fallujah are allowed to drive in the city, and only if they have a sticker issued by the Iraqi Police on their windshield. Charging 100 dollars for that sticker in a city where the average salary is only 300 dollars per month, and where unemployment is greater than 50 percent, is hardly a strategy for earning the support and respect of the locals.

“I will take care of it,” Lieutenant DeSantis said. “Most of the Iraqi Police are new. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but they are improving.”

Marine and Two Civilians Night Fallujah.jpg

“And the fuel,” said the first Iraqi. “It is too expensive. We need fuel to heat our houses. It gets cold here in winter. You will see.”

I felt like I was out with cops who moonlight as politicians, not the fiercest of all American warriors. I can see why there are only 250 Marines in the city. Fallujah really isn’t a war zone anymore. It seems like the Marines really should be able to leave once the local government and the Iraqi Police get their act together. Many say that would rather go to Afghanistan where they can still “get some.”

A minority of Marines, however, think this is naive wishful thinking.

“None of the bad guys dares to take a shot at us because they know it’s a death sentence if they do,” one of them said. “But they’ll go after the Iraqi Police once we pull out.”

“As soon as we leave, it’s going to pop off again,” said another.

There is no way they can know that is true. It is just a gut feeling based on what they’ve seen and what they’ve heard, and it’s the minority viewpoint. But a gloomy Army soldier I met last summer in Baghdad said something so simple, depressing, and obviously correct that I doubt I will ever forget it.

“Iraq will always be Iraq,” he said as he shook his head and stared at his feet.

To be continued.

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Lebanon’s Terror War


Captain Wissam Eid “was murdered by car bomb in East Beirut”:http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/26/world/middleeast/26lebanon.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin by someone who wasn’t happy with his investigation of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He had compiled evidence linking the Syrian state to that killing.

Abu Kais writes at From Beirut to the Beltway:

You know the situation is desperate when the man investigating unsolvable crimes is mysteriously assassinated in broad daylight. Desperate situations call for desperate measures, yet those measures are no where in sight. The killing machine continues unabated, amid useless condemnations and grandiose and meaningless announcements about the future of the country.

Very few of us knew Wissam Eid. He worked in the police’s intelligence unit, reportedly in counterterrorism. Terrorism in Lebanon is the nickname for acts sponsored by Syrian intelligence, and their contractors in the fundamentalist world. Wissam was probably involved in Lebanon’s “war on terror”, which, mind you, was never officially declared.

Lebanon has been under direct attack since 2004. Local and regional players have been redrawing its political map through assassinations and intimidation campaigns. At present, the country has no functioning government, no president, and the cabinet has been made to look like an enemy entity. Even the ISF, whose badge Eid carried, was called a “militia” by the likes of Aoun and his friends in the Iranian-guided fundamentalist militia.

It’s ironic that this assassination comes after a Hizbullah media campaign accusing March 14 of trying to assassinate Hassan Nasrallah. Eid’s assassination validates the opposite: Nasrallah’s opponents are being liquidated.


Murder has been profitable in our country, and in the region. No one is going after the killers—their harshest punishment to date took the form of “initiatives” and “dialogue”. Lebanon, once again, is where anything goes, a free killing zone sanctioned by its enemies, and by friends who talk too much and do nothing.

Journalistic Malpractice

Khaled Abu Toameh “busts reporters for collaborating with Hamas and staging photographs in Gaza”:http://www.solomonia.com/blog/archive/2008/01/darkness-at-noon-msm-plays-along-with-ha/. This is really getting ridiculous, but it’s also a lot harder to get away with than it used to be.


See if you can figure out why this staged photo of the Palestinian parliament in Gaza is fake before clicking the link. Reuters couldn’t figure it out, and “they published it on January 22, 2008″:http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/slideshow/photo//080122/ids_photos_india_wl/ra3346369875.jpg/.

While You’re Waiting

I’ve had too many things to do all at once, but I’m almost caught up. The publishing schedule around here will be back to normal shortly.

In the meantime, here are some worthwhile links to keep you busy.

Noah Pollak posts a counterintuitive argument at Commentary and says “Gazans crashing through the Egyptian border is good news”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/pollak/2031.

The Times of London says “Hamas has been planning to break into Egypt for months”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article3238615.ece.

Bill Roggio published a map at the Long War Journal that shows “the shrinking areas of operation for Al Qaeda in Iraq”:http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2008/01/al_qaeda_in_iraqs_sh.php.

The Washington Post reports that the U.S. military now believes that “90 percent of foreign fighters in Iraq entered from Syria”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/20/AR2008012002609_pf.html.

An Afghan journalist was “sentenced to death”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7204341.stm for downloading “blasphemous” material about women from the Internet and distributing it.

Raymond Ibrahim translated and edited an important new book called The Al Qaeda Reader. Victor Davis Hanson wrote the introduction. A portion of the profits will be donated to the “Committee to Protect Journalists”:http://www.cpj.org/.

New Comments System

I have a new comments system on this site that, so far anyway, has shut down the comment spammers completely. Old posts were filling up with around 200 “comments” per day advertising hotels in China and “World of Warcraft gold.” Two individual spam robots broke my old system all by themselves. It was impossible to manually delete all that crap, especially when I was off the grid in Fallujah. Now you have to sign in with a Typekey account in order to post comments. Spammers don’t go to the trouble because they will be instantly banned and won’t be allowed back in even if they change their IP address and set up a new username and password. My banning capabilities are now fool-proof.

I’m happy with the new system. Not only does it prevent spam from even appearing, it’s also a lot easier to get rid of rude commenters for the same reason it’s easy to get rid of spammers. It’s so effective against trolls that I haven’t even had to deal with rude commenters at all. Apparently they are aware that this system makes it impossible for them to continue posting if I throw them out, so they don’t even try.

The only hitch is that many of my regular commenters are gone now. Apparently many of you don’t want to go to the trouble of setting up a Typekey account. I understand. It’s a minor hassle.

But look. It takes less than two minutes to set it up. Once you create your account, the same username and password will work at every blog in the world that uses this system. And you can stay signed in for two weeks at a time. It’s actually less of a hassle for you to post comments on my site now than it used to be. You no longer have to enter a six digit numerical code every time you want to post something. I got rid of that feature. Once you’re signed in, you’re done with the hassle for two weeks. The new system is easier for you, easier for me, and much harder for spambots and trolls. So those of you who disappeared because you’re afraid of new things, please come on back. We’ve missed you.

City Journal

The editors at “City Journal”:http://www.city-journal.org/ asked me to write a Fallujah story for them, and I’m wrapping that up as fast as I can so I can get back to blogging. I apologize for the delay here, but I don’t make enough money from the blog to pay for travel expenses and a mortgage, etc. It’s still a good deal for you, though, even with the delay, because you can read the City Journal essay for free when it becomes available online.

I’ve been reading the Internet version of that magazine for years, and I finally decided to subscribe to the print version. My first issue arrived in the mail recently. I have to say (but they aren’t paying me or even asking me to say this) that it’s the finest-looking magazine I have ever subscribed to. I can hardly wait to see my own story in its lovely pages. The production values are absolutely first rate. That alone makes it worth paying for. Those of you who like hard copies of my stories (hi Mom) might want to sign up.

Incidentally, did you know Christopher Hitchens has a new book out? I didn’t until I read “the review in that magazine”:http://www.city-journal.org/2008/bc0118jw.html.

Media Lies

I swear on my family that I will never be a part of “something like this”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/pollak/1963 and will immediately blow the whistle if I witness it in person.

Tons of Material On the Way

I apologize for being a bit slow. I’ve spent the last five days doing nothing but transcribing my notebooks and recorded interviews and organizing the massive amount of material I have from the Fallujah area. I realized I was not going to be able to proceed with my writing until I finished that, and it’s a good thing I did. What I thought was going to be a single dispatch called The Last Mission, for example, will actually turn into a gigantic essay in three parts that might be too long for even a magazine like The Atlantic or The New Yorker.

Now that I have organized all my material, finally, I can tell you how many more essay-length dispatches I’ll publish as soon as I have time to write them: eleven. I thought I had eight more, but I have eleven.

I wish I could chug through all this a bit faster, but I can’t do justice to the material if I do. I have so much to work with in front of me that I feel like I’m writing a book. So please bear with me, and thank you for being patient.

A Photo Gallery from Kuwait

Here are some pictures from Kuwait to hold you over while I’m writing my next dispatch from Fallujah.

Kuwait Skyline and Cannon.jpg

Kuwait Skyline from Holiday Inn 1.jpg

Kuwait Skyline from Holiday Inn 2.jpg

Kuwait Skyline at Night.jpg

Kuwait Boat.jpg

Kuwait Al Hashemi Info.jpg

Kuwait Al Hashemi Back.jpg

Kuwait Al Hashemi Side.jpg

Kuwait Beach.jpg

Kuwait Beach 2.jpg

Kuwait Beach 3.jpg

Kuwait Persian Gulf.jpg

Kuwait Mosque.jpg

Kuwait War Remembrance.jpg


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