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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Seven insurgents had attacked a checkpoint at a vital bridge over the Euphrates that I would later visit. The IA were already jumpy from having three rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) fired at them earlier in the day, two of which hit the bridge. Now they were shooting back from both the bridge position and an upper floor of a building near the bridge where they had more soldiers stationed. At some point the insurgents slipped out, but in the meantime a Marine quick reaction force had arrived. The Marines, unfortunately, were unaware that there was an IA post on the bridge and took them under fire. The IA, paying no attention to the color of the Marine tracer rounds, assumed they were bad guys and fired back.

The commander of the unit I was embedded with, Maj. William Rummel, worked his walkie-talkie furiously to get both sides to cease fire. He succeeded just in time. The Marines, he later told the Iraqis, were about to call in a helicopter gunship to spray the bridge and probably rocket the building. Although about 2,000 rounds had been fired off (300 Marine, 1,700 Iraqi), nobody was hurt. That's not particularly surprising. It's not like in the movies where it usually only takes one or two rounds to bring down a soldier. Unless a good sniper is at work, it takes a lot of bullets to kill a man.

The next day, on a two-hour foot patrol, we heard another firefight and saw flares go up and smoke rising, though buildings blocked our view. Shortly after, I went back to Camp Falluja to be handed over to another unit when our Humvee broke down. While we were waiting for it to be fixed, there was, again, the thumping of outgoing artillery.

Finally we got to Third Battalion at Camp India at 2 a.m. Exhausted, I fell asleep in seconds, only to be awakened by four large explosions that sounded awfully close. They were. The bad guys had hit us with 122-millimeter mortars, the largest size they normally use, and large they are (about 5 inches in diameter and a couple feet long). The shells flew over the tiny camp and landed just outside. It's perhaps telling that I had heard enough gunfire in the past few days that I just rolled over and went back to sleep.

More encouraging was the response to an attack on Observation Post 3, which I visited two days after the attack. Manned by about 80 IA and three Marines, OP3 was stealthily enveloped on three sides by about 50 to 80 enemy firing from buildings that were anywhere from several hundred yards away to practically across the street. They attacked with RPGs and numerous light machine guns. The IA had nothing more than a few light machine guns and their AK-47 automatic rifles. (Their commanders are adamant that they need heavier weapons, especially large-caliber machine guns, but for various reasons the U.S. military isn't ready to supply them yet.)

Normally, both IA and American forces can get air support--helicopters or fighter-bombers--within 20 minutes, assuming there's enough space between good guys and bad guys to prevent fratricide. Often there isn't. Further, in what may have been a coordinated attack, fighting was raging in Ramadi at the same time and tying down air support. So the IA and the Marines had to hold on for 45 minutes for relief, in a war in which many firefights are over in just a few minutes. Finally, Marine quick reaction units arrived from two different directions only to find themselves under fire. But now the Iraqis and Americans switched to the offensive and got helicopter support.

For 17 hours they pursued the enemy through the city, killing 18 and taking prisoners. One IA officer was killed, a lieutenant, along with five Iraqi soldiers. Interestingly, that death was a source of pride and encouragement to the IA, in that the lieutenant died a hero--barking out orders with his dying breath. What could have been an absolute disaster became, in this war of small actions and small arms, a stunning success.

Why the Increased Violence?

And yet it must be reiterated that a year ago this area was quiet. Is beating off enemy attacks somehow better than not having them at all? It wouldn't seem so unless you consider the major demographic changes during that time.

A year ago, residents had just started trickling back to their homes. Now the people have returned and, à la Mao Zedong's rules for guerrilla warfare, have become "the sea" in which the enemy can swim. Further, shortly after the Battle of Falluja in November 2004, U.S. troop strength in the area was somewhere north of 3,000 and was still high when I arrived in May 2005. Now it's down to about 300, with a few thousand IA and IP (Iraqi Police) filling the vacuum. (Exact numbers are confidential.)