Sunday, April 20, 2008

Visit to Downtown Fallujah

With limited Internet access the past couple of weeks I am playing catchup.

Last week I returned to Fallujah to attend a City Council meeting and visit Marines of 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines operating out an old hotel in the heart of Fallujah in the Fallujah City Government complex. Four of these Marines were completing their second tour in Iraq, and another was serving his third—all five serving previously in the Fallujah vicinity. Expecting a more hostile environment, 2nd Platoon arrived after the Awakening Movement had taken root in Fallujah. They were surprised to find that instead of being shot at, or parents pulling their children in the gates of their compounds, the children played freely in the streets, and adults came out of their compounds and waved. Children often came up to them and held their arms as they walked down the street, or begged them to play soccer, while adults came up to them to talk. These young American diplomats told me they occasionally had meals with Iraqi families, or shared a cup of chai tea. They also told me how they frequently delivered food bags to the poorer families, and school bags filled with school supplies to the schools in their precinct.
That night I went out with second squad on a mobile patrol through the city as they showed their replacements the city. While there were no women out that late, men and boys sat on the front steps of their compounds, whereas others socialized in groups on the sidewalk. Some storeowners sat in their stores hoping for a late customer. Everywhere we went the Iraqi Police and Sons of Iraq kept a diligent watch on the city, controlling movement from precinct to precinct. We stopped in one neighborhood and dismounted for several minutes as the patrol leader had a friendly conversation with an Iraqi man smoking a cigarette on his from porch.
The “Samurai” of 2nd Platoon left Fallujah with their battalion this week after seven months in the heart of Fallujah. The entire battalion left without a single casualty or a single moment of combat.
Meanwhile, the Awakening has not only led to better security in Fallujah and al Anbar Province, as well as better relations with U.S. forces, but has led to more tips from locals regarding finding weapons caches and killing al Qaeda terrorists.

For on the massive weapons caches:

For excellent unbiased journalism on Iraq:

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Fallujah now versus then

I traveled into the heart of Fallujah today, to the infamous bridge known to Marines as the “Blackwater Bridge” where the charred mutilated bodies of four American security agents working for Blackwater were hung for the world to see in an al Qaeda propaganda stunt custom made for al Jazeera’s cameras. Iraqis know the bridge as the King Faisal Bridge, named for Iraq’s first monarch after World War I, who personally dedicated the bridge in 1927. Today, characteristic of the “awakening” taking place, the busy bridge was rededicated to King Faisal, and leading the rededication ceremony was Colonel Faisal, head of Iraqi Police in Fallujah. Colonel Faisal is an amazing man, whom I am told fought against us in both wars. A greatly respected man, he is representative of “the awakening” here in al Anbar Province. However, because of his strong relationship with U.S. forces here and his commitment to eradicate al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) here, he is a target for AQI terror and assassination. Each member of Colonel Faisal’s personal body guard detail has a personal reason to keep him alive, because each member has had someone in their family killed by al Qaeda. The King Faisal Bridge is important to Fallujans, and its rededication an important milestone in reconciliation and progress here in Fallujah and Western Iraq. (For more see

Friday, April 04, 2008

Return to Fallujah

In the three and a half years since I left Fallujah, the many of the same Iraqis who fought against us when I was here in 2004 now work with us against a common enemy. They realized that al-Qaeda wanted total control of the population, and used terrorism against the local population to achieve that goal. This included murdering children in horrific ways to get people to plant roadside bombs or become suicide bombers.
Al Fallujah is one of several cities along the Euphrates River where many of Iraq’s Sunnis lived. Although ar Ramadi was the political capital of al Anbar Province, al Fallujah holds a significant position of its own. Its proximity between Baghdad and Syria and Jordan made it a crossroads for the smuggling trade and the Iraqi Baath Party maintained considerable commercial interests there. Even before Saddam came to power, Iraqi’s considered Fallujah a dangerous and unfriendly place—an ancient criminal safe haven and a cesspool of organized crime. Because of its ancient history as a way station for merchants, smugglers, and thieves crossing the desert, some considered this rebellious and independent city a hideout for bandits and terrorists long before the fall of Saddam.
Before Operation Vigilant Resolve in 2004, Fallujah was a large city of 250,000 to 300,000 people, concentrated in a relatively small urban area compared to familiar cities in the U.S (there are many estimates of the cities population). Fallujah’s people are composed of several tribes, of which a hand full of larger tribes vie for control of the city—control of its government, its businesses, its crime—even control its people. While the tribal Sheiks, influential Baathists, and city elders held some power, the Sunni Imams, or religious leaders, claimed a larger share of it for themselves, using their abilities to influence large groups of followers. With three Muslim colleges renowned for Islamic fundamentalism, and seventy-two mosques, Fallujah is Iraq’s Wahhabi capital and is known as the “City of Mosques.” These Wahhabis hoped to establish an Islamic Shariah government in Iraq, intimidating both secular Iraqis and Shias. The convergence of Arab tribal culture, crime, and Wahhabi Islam conspired to make Fallujah a rebellious, independent city, and a potential threat to Baath interests. For these reasons, Saddam kept many of his best troops on the large cluster of bases outside the city now used by Coalition forces.
Following the Baath Party’s fall from power in 2003, Fallujah’s larger tribes began vying for control of the city’s government, businesses, people, and crime. Amid this factional climate, some tribes and factions began attacking and terrorizing their enemies, which invited retaliation and the full fury of vendetta and counter-vendetta custom. Meanwhile, the Wahhabi Imams (religious leaders) joined the foreign fighters, who came for inspired by anti-western rhetoric and religious fanaticism, and began to assert their power for not only control of the city, but for Iraq.
When media generated public outcry ended Operation Vigilant Resolve before it reached its objectives (see the previous blog), Fallujah’s terrorists and guerrillas operated with impunity, and became an al-Qaeda base of operations for attacks on Baghdad. Nicholas Berg and others, as shown on al-Jazeera, were beheaded here. Both senior American and the new Iraqi leadership realized the ending Operation Vigilant Resolve had been a mistake and allowed the U.S. Marines and Army to secure the city in the fiercest urban combat since Hue City in Vietnam.
Since then, the residents of Fallujah have been returning and rebuilding the city. Despite periods of violence in 2005 and 2006, the city, along with all of al Anbar Province, has embraced U.S. forces in a common cause. The U.S. Marine model has greatly influenced the new counter insurgency strategy developed by General David Petraeus and implemented by General Raymond Odierno. Now Fallujah is a place where children can play freely in the streets, and Marines can enter more as guest. Nonetheless, al-Qaeda in Iraq is desperate, and is expected to attempt deadly attacks to disrupt the peace and attract needed media attention.

What the numbers really represent

(Delayed post from 2 April 2008) For the past couple of weeks the media has concentrated on the five-year anniversary of the Iraq War and the 4,000 casualty figure—defining the U.S. effort here in such narrow terms as it had since Vietnam while ignoring the overall effort and reports of progress. There are many ways to put that number in perspective, such as that about that many die every year on California’s highways, or that the annual murder rate in the United States exceeds that number, or that in past wars more than that would die in a single battle. However, none of these comparisons tell the full story. The true measure of U.S. involvement in Iraq is that we, the United States and the West, are making friends from former enemies for the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. These are enemies that once sided with both the Nazis and Soviets, and isolated from the West for centuries, they were indoctrinated to hate us. Now for the first time they are getting to know us, and as some Iraqis told me during me last deployment, liking us. Contrary to the claims of some intellectuals, isolated themselves in Ivy covered buildings, the United States is a beacon of freedom, democracy, hope, and opportunity in this region.