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The Watchmen

In Anbar, the Marines do what they've always done.

12:00 AM, Sep 3, 2007 • By MARIO LOYOLA
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Kharma, Iraq

In Iraq's Anbar province most of the U.S. military has moved beyond counterinsurgency and into "stability operations"--but not Company K, 3/3 of the Marines 6th Regimental Combat Team. Not entirely. This flat, grassy, and serenely rural farm country a few miles northeast of Fallujah, near the town of Kharma, is one of the few areas of Anbar province that still has some insurgency left to counter.

In the three days before I arrived for my stay with 3/3, the company had found seven IEDs on the roads within a mile of their tiny base. The various platoons on patrol, billeted in local houses, were still taking small-arms and mortar fire nightly.

Captain Jaisun Hanson, the company's sober and soft-spoken commanding officer, invited me to join him on a visit to several new checkpoints of the local Iraqi Civilian Watch--the informal neighborhood guards that have been springing up in many parts of Iraq. A small convoy took us to collect "Colonel" Salam, a former officer in the Iraqi Army, nephew of a sheik who was recently murdered by al Qaeda, and now a rising leader in the area. Salam has taken the lead in organizing the ICW in this little corner of Iraq.

Salam seems to have little idea how crucial his efforts are to the Coalition. The Marines here are "pushing out" from the area around Fallujah towards the operational "seam" between their jurisdiction and the Coalition forces of the Baghdad military region to the north and west. In a methodical application of "clear, hold, and build," the Marines are advancing a "clearing" line and backfilling it for the "hold and build" with Iraqi Security Forces and an array of civil affairs and reconstruction activities--including, crucially, the ICW.

When the major tribes of western Iraq pledged to join forces against the al Qaeda scourge, many sheiks pledged the young men of their families to organize for local protection. The commanders of the Marine Expeditionary Force have used the example of these leading sheiks to convince others to do the same. In particular, they have methodically courted each of the tribes around Anbar's two most important cities--Ramadi and Fallujah. This has been vital to establishing a "defense-in-depth" of the hard-won peace that now reigns in both cities -- formerly the redoubts of the Sunni insurgency.

It's a great start. But as with any great endeavor, the road ahead is mostly obscured by daunting challenges. During my visits, I observed three immediate problems: first, how to credential the participating individuals so that they are in some minimal sense "official"; second, how to make sure they are armed well-enough to be effective; and third, how to keep a force meant to retard civil strife from becoming an accelerants of it.

Proper credentials

The first night out we ran straight into the first of these problems at the newest of the checkpoints. Several of the ICW were armed but were missing some critical piece of identification.

The most basic kind of neighborhood watch is now operating in Anbar, requiring just a rudimentary credentialing of willing participants: their personal information and biometrics (fingerprints and retina-scans) are collected and entered into a central Coalition database for record-keeping and basic vetting. They are then given an official ICW identity card and a fluorescent yellow reflective belt.

These reflective belts, the same ones used by U.S. military personnel when they go jogging, were a clever solution, but the credentialed ICW have been passing them off their un-credentialed buddies. As a result we found armed men with weapons and ID cards but no belt (looks and smells like an insurgent); armed men with belts but no ID card (could actually be an insurgent); and armed men with neither (ditto + ditto).

The captain gently pointed out that if they want to stand around with their weapons, they had to have proper ICW identification--otherwise they would be detained, or worse. They appeared very apologetic; but one turned to me and said, grinning, "Arabs don't like rules."

Arming the good guys

The following morning we picked up processed ID cards and belts for several dozen more ICW and went to a local school (not yet in session) to process the new "recruits." As soon as we got there, the second of the major problems I mentioned--that of arming the ICW adequately--manifested in stark simplicity. Several of the new recruits showed up without the weapons they were supposed to bring along, and a local sheik, who had promised more men, was now asking the Marines to help him get weapons for them.