The Magazine

Back to Falluja

The Iraqi Army versus the Keystone Kops insurgency.

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
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Al Anbar Province, Iraq

I ARRIVED AT CAMP FALLUJA in Iraq's Anbar Province by Blackhawk at 4 a.m. on the morning of April 13. No sooner had I lain down in my bunk than I heard the "thump, thump, thump" of outgoing artillery, five rounds in all. I later learned they were illumination rounds, probably called in to light up the area around the Iraqi Army's Observation Post 3 (OP3) in Karma, just northeast of Falluja. It was, I was told, the largest enemy action in the area in the last eight months.

This was my second visit to Al Anbar, a hotbed of enemy activity that stretches out west of Baghdad all the way to the Syrian and Jordanian borders. It's almost entirely Sunni and was heavily Baathist before Saddam's overthrow, and it's also the pipeline into Iraq for jihadists from the rest of the Islamic world. When I was in Camp Falluja a year ago for about a week, I heard no outgoing fire, and there was no incoming fire. Ramadi, the reputed headquarters of al Qaeda in Iraq, remained wracked with violence, but Falluja was a tame pussycat.

Now it has sprouted long nails and sharp teeth. Before I left the city and its environs, I would hear outgoing artillery on all three nights I spent time at Camp Falluja, withstand a mortar attack on one of the small outposts I stayed at, and hear more firefights in the distance, either from the outposts or out on patrol, than I could count.

Did we seize Falluja in November 2004 only to slowly cede it back to the enemy? And if so, what does it say about the "grab and hold" strategy underway to secure this huge Sunni province, without which the war cannot be won? Is the Iraqi Army (IA) that we are training up to the job? The answers are complex, and I often felt like each of the nine blind men grappling with the elephant--at one point feeling a trunk, at another the tail. But this is what I saw and heard.

MiTTs and the IA

I rotated among three different battalions of the Iraqi First Division based out of Camp India, just east of Falluja. One was in Falluja proper, one in Karma, and one at Camp India itself. All comprise both Iraqi Army soldiers and Americans. The IA recruits come here fresh from basic training (formerly a scant three weeks, but now eight) for further instruction in tracking down, detaining, and killing the enemy. The enemy is known by several nicknames including "Ali Baba," "Wahhabi" (the strict form of Islam to which many of the terrorists adhere), "the bad guys," and "Mooj," for mujahedeen.

The Americans attached to the Iraqi First Division are from the 80th Division, an Army Reserve unit based in Richmond, Virginia. They are not combat support--that comes from Marines at Camp Falluja and various forward operating bases (or FOBs, which rhymes with "Rob") throughout the area. Rather, these soldiers form "Military Transition Teams," or MiTTs. They always accompany the IA on patrols and raids "outside the wire," as leaving the camp is called; their job is to transition the IA into an independent fighting force that eventually can operate with no American help. These MiTT units may have less than a dozen men in them, including a few Marines attached for extra firepower.

Normally, what the MiTTs are doing would be the job of the Army Special Forces, the vaunted Green Berets who performed so brilliantly in leading the Northern Alliance to victory in Afghanistan. But "we don't have enough SF to do what we're doing now, in the magnitude and at the pace we want to do this," explains Col. Thomas C. Greenwood. "We have over 50 adviser teams just in Al Anbar. You'd use up every Green Beret team in the world if you were to use just them." Greenwood, from the First Marine Expeditionary Force, is the assistant chief of staff for Marine advisers to all three branches of the Iraqi security forces: the army, the border forces, and the police.

Friendly Fire

How is the transition from U.S. forces to Iraqi Security Forces going in the Falluja area? Judging by the amount of hostile activity, it might seem not very well. It's unfair to say there's constant fighting in the area, but when you hear several firefights in a day, you know it's busy. On my second night in the area, at Second Battalion in Karma, I was enjoying a beautiful moonlit evening, watching the Iraqi soldiers excitedly prepare for the arrival of a captured suspect. Suddenly I heard the brat-brat-brat of machine gun fire perhaps two miles away. Then all hell broke loose out there. I listened for awhile, then went inside to find out what was happening. It wasn't good.