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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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The enemy will and do attack the Marines. At Second Battalion in Karma, the unit proudly displays a sign reading: "Go out of our country saveges [sic]. If you don't we shall kill you all because you are terrorists and killers." It's signed "Islamic Resistance." But clearly, around Falluja at least, they prefer Iraqi targets. Is that because the Iraqis are softer targets? Col. Greenwood says no. "I think the insurgents target the Iraqis not because they're lesser fighters; I think it's because they can have a huge psychological effect. Any small victory they score helps them. It puts a damper on recruiting and allows the local populace to see insurgents have strength." He also says the "increased spike in violence is an act of desperation," a last ditch effort to win before the coalition grows any stronger. But we've been hearing that "last ditch" stuff for the last couple of years, haven't we?

I don't doubt there's truth to what Greenwood says, but it remains the case that the enemy needs softer targets. I watched a video of an attack on a Falluja police station with a surrounding wall. The tape had fallen into coalition hands when the cameraman dropped his equipment and ran. The "actors" in the film were no more competent. One fired an RPG while running, making the odds of hitting the target slightly less than zero. Another was too scared to take the safety off his RPG and just stood there looking like an idiot. Another fired his light machine gun at a wall directly in front of him, while yet another kept tripping over the ammo belt that dangled from his machine gun and dragged on the ground. Others would simply hold their weapons above their head and fire over the wall. Yet they appeared to be taking almost no return fire from the police. They could have safely aimed their weapons, but made no effort to do so. All they got for their efforts was that most were captured after being identified from the film.

It also remains true that the IP and IA provide softer targets; they are not yet up to the job of defeating these Keystone Kop "warriors."

The police are still woefully undertrained and undermanned; they spend all too much time sitting in their reinforced stations and often require protection themselves. Infiltration also remains a problem, and there have been local reports of the police showing up at a firefight and for some reason the enemy won't shoot at them. In other words, apparently they've cut a deal: "You leave us alone; we'll leave you alone."

The IA are clearly superior to the IP in terms of ability and weapons, yet the "jundi" (pronounced "joon-dee"), as the IA like to be called (although strictly speaking it refers to the low rank of private), simply lack the aggressiveness of American troops. While reports of individuals taking to their heels during a firefight are rare, the IA often seem to think that merely breaking off an enemy attack is the equivalent of victory.

I sat in an office with several IA who were in Saddam's so-called "special forces" and with Maj. Rummel, as he displayed the patience of Job in repeatedly emphasizing the need to go after and kill the enemy. There was lots of nodding, but I saw no evidence he got his point across. I also questioned the IA commander at OP3 on this during an interview, asking more than once if he was ready to send his men out to kill rather than merely defend. He simply evaded my questions, although he did say there was a value in grabbing prisoners.

In addition to lack of aggressiveness, the IA seem incapable of exercising fire control. Even without being able to distinguish the sound of an American weapon from an Iraqi one, you can often tell the difference in an instant. The well-drilled Americans fire off short bursts; Iraqis just pull that trigger and hold it. This makes it almost impossible to aim. Guns pull up as you fire them, and before you know it you're shooting at the clouds. It also wastes vast amounts of ammunition. (This is why, in the modern versions of the venerable M-16 rifle and its shorter M-4 counterpart, "full automatic" mode is mechanically limited to three-round bursts.)

On patrol with the IA in Falluja, they repeatedly needed to be urged to fully perform their jobs, such as stopping suspicious cars and interrogating the passengers. (In Ramadi, where every daytime patrol is a matter of life and death, the IA performed considerably better and more autonomously.)

Everyone understands that the IA will never be up to the level of American soldiers. On the other hand, judging by the even more woeful performance of the enemy, they'll hardly have to be. Further, there's absolutely no evidence the insurgency is growing, while the IP and IA in Falluja clearly are. In Al Anbar, as well as in Iraq as a whole, while it's common to hear that time is on the side of the enemy, it's really not.

"We only have about 3,000 IP now," says Greenwood, "but we expect to break the 10,000 point by next fall. They go to a police academy, we train them, give them gear, and give them leadership." Further, "we have about 18,000 Iraqi soldiers in Al Anbar and had only half of that last year." Nevertheless, Greenwood and others told me, it's the Iraqi Police that will really make the difference. Just as the Marines are turning larger and larger swaths of Falluja over to the Iraqi Army, the IA will one day have to start turning those areas over to the police. "A big challenge is building the Iraqi Army, but that's not a permanent solution," says Greenwood. "Once the police network is up and operating, it's the swan song for insurgents."

Hearts, Minds, and High-Fives

What about the "hearts and minds" aspect of the war? There was no place we patrolled where we didn't at least collect prodigious amounts of smiles and greetings from both children and adults. A recon patrol through a Falluja neighborhood known as Nasser Wa Salaam was instructive. Nasser Wa Salaam is like Sadr City in Baghdad--a ghetto into which Saddam herded the Shiites. But after decades of intermarriage, it's now about 60/40 Shiite/Sunni. It's basically an open-air toilet, with sewage collecting in large puddles. Fortunately for the residents, they don't seem to know how poor they are, and when we came through they were all smiles.

Street urchins followed us around in packs, initially begging for "Choccolata" and money. "U.S. number one! George Bush number one! Choccolata?" On safer patrols, we might carry and hand out candy, but not on this one. We couldn't afford distractions; an ace sniper was operating in the area. He'd already plugged several Marines, including one who was shot while lying prone, the best defensive position if you're caught in the open--an incredible shot. "The round went into his neck and tore a path right into his lungs," a Marine told me, perhaps providing more of a forensics report than I needed.

So this time we told the kids, "No choccolata!" but they didn't seem to care. They wanted high-fives, handshakes, head rubs, and conversation, notwithstanding that we barely knew anything they said. When I told them I was a reporter--"Izmi sahafi"--they kept demanding I take their photos. So I'd pretend, and they'd be delighted.

That was the happy side. On another patrol in an overwhelmingly Shiite section near Falluja's main market, I saw barriers placed across lesser streets. They might be rocks, large concrete pipes, or even just piles of trash. I asked about them. These people were exceptionally friendly to us, so clearly the barricades weren't intended for Americans or IA. "They're terrified of the insurgents," a soldier told me. The insurgents are lazy and don't like to walk, so usually stopping their cars stops them. In any case, it prevents drive-by shootings.

But civilians are fair game for shootings, bombings, and intimidation. New structures such as schools and hospitals are regularly targeted by mortar and rocket attacks. Cell phone towers are blasted so that civilians can't call in tips to American and Iraqi forces. In Ramadi, the bad guys waited until a hospital was 95 percent completed and then blew it up. Nobody had the heart to start over. As Col. Greenwood explains it, there are four phases to defeating the enemy. "You need security, then stability, then reconstruction, and finally prosperity in that order," he says. "We're still somewhat between the first and second. The insurgent knows if he can keep us from devoting resources to the last two, ultimately you can't win over the people--you're just using their neighborhoods as a battleground."

Throughout much of the country, not just in Al Anbar, ambitious American programs of electrification and building are often crippled, in part by attacks, but mostly by fear of attacks, causing inordinate expenditures on security. A couple of insurgents with a couple of mortar rounds that widely miss their mark can nonetheless scare off construction crews. That was a tactic used to try to prevent the building of Camp India.

"Insurgents would fire mortars into the camp and invariably a sizable number [of workers] wouldn't return the next day," Third Battalion commander Lt. Col. Doug Anderson told me. "They'd filter back, but you had significant delays as a result. The Iraqis went after one mortar team [with a patrol] and got it. That slowed the attacks. But workers died, workers were wounded, Iraqi soldiers were wounded." Nevertheless, said Anderson, "this camp was going to be built no matter what the insurgency wanted."

Ultimately the war isn't going to be decided just by killing lots of bad guys, as important (and satisfying) as that can be. Guerrilla conflicts are political, and the best Iraqi commanders know that. One of them is the commander of First Division, who has so many names he simply goes by "General Abdullah." Iraqi commanders tend to talk in circles--one was a bigger gas bag than the Hindenburg--but Abdullah is relatively straightforward.

He complains that he's outgunned by the bad guys. "My soldiers only have AKs and PKCs [light machine guns, essentially an AK-47 with extra kick], and my soldiers ask me why the Army has no heavy machine guns." But he's delighted that his sector has recently been enlarged. "The men are proud that the Marines trust us to give us more space. We have informers, and because we have good relationships with people, we can do stuff the Marines can't. But we can share information with Marines as well."

And he acknowledges that his troops can't do it all. He believes the linchpin is a strong government. "The more the people trust the government, the easier my job becomes," he says. Or as Greenwood puts it, "I think we're making progress, but what the American people have to understand is that insurgency is essentially a political contest between both sides competing for the popular will."

From Falluja all the way west to the Syrian border, Abdullah acknowledges, there is much sympathy for the enemy and many hiding places, including farms and caves. "When there is a political solution with them," he says, "they will help stop the foreign guys."

It won't be easy, but if it can be accomplished in Al Anbar it can be done anywhere. Says Greenwood, "One high-ranking Iraqi officer told me 'Al Anbar is worse than the devil!'" But Greenwood disarmed him. "I said with your help, we're going to make it too nice for the devil to visit."

Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, last wrote for The Weekly Standard about the avian flu.