Brothers In Arms
In Fallujah, U.S. Marine advisers are trying to develop a few good men
FALLUJAH, IRAQ--For two nights in a row, shadowy gunmen took a few potshots at the Iraqi soldiers that 1st Lt. Khalid Abdul Rahman Muhamad sent on patrol through Fallujah's Jolan district. That's hardly an uncommon occurrence, and typically, Muhamad would just report the incidents to U.S. marines tasked with securing the northwest section of this restive city. But this time, for the first time, Muhamad turned to Marine Corps Maj. Larry Huggins and offered his own plan to rout out the insurgents with a nighttime raid.
That may not seem like much of a development, but even such a nascent show of initiative is taken as evidence of progress. It is just what the U.S. military is hoping to encourage through a nationwide experiment that is putting small deployments of American troops alongside their Iraqi counterparts to provide around-the-clock training, support, and encouragement. In fortified outposts here, for the past four months, Huggins and his team of advisers have lived and worked with the jundi , Arabic for soldiers, of the 2nd Brigade of the Iraqi Intervention Force, a division of the Iraqi Army. The concept is that having marines constantly work with Iraqis will build up strong Iraqi forces faster than can be done through the conventional combination of classroom training, exercises, and occasional joint patrols. And since the Bush administration links U.S. military withdrawal to the readiness of Iraqi defense forces, U.S. soldiers and marines see success in this style of training as America's best hope for a ticket out of Iraq.
Still, no one should underestimate the challenges. While some former Saddam Hussein-era soldiers have joined the force, many Iraqi recruits have no military background. In any event, American officers are trying to create a fresh mind-set along with a functional structure. Under Saddam, for instance, there was no seasoned corps of noncommissioned officers, the senior enlisted soldiers who enforce discipline and direct training for lower-ranking soldiers. In the old Army, officers gave orders, unresponsive to feedback from below. The Americans hope to model the new Iraqi Army on the U.S. military, yet that adds to the enormity of the task.
Training wheels. The past four months, the Marine advisers in Fallujah acknowledge, have been a slow crawl. Even the simple things--like getting Iraqis to pay attention on guard duty or refrain from shopping while on patrol--have been difficult to accomplish. So Muhamad's initiative was regarded as something of a breakthrough; it was the first time that one of the company leaders had identified a problem and proposed a solution. Huggins agreed with Muhamad's assessment: There was a likely problem with insurgents in the Jolan district. Huggins urged Muhamad to refine the plan with his platoon leaders and then take it to the commander of the 2nd Battalion, Col. Raed Jasem Edan. Behind the scenes, Huggins was working to get backing for Muhamad's plan--a fairly basic nighttime operation that would establish a line of jundi and then send a patrol to draw fire and flush the gunmen from their positions toward the waiting cordon of soldiers. "This is the first time the training wheels will be coming off," Huggins says.
All Army recruits, including the Fallujah force, go through a basic six-week training course. The military claims it has so far trained and equipped 169,000 soldiers with a goal of having a 240,000-man Army a year from now. But "trained" is a relative term in Iraq. The marines in Fallujah say the "trained" recruits are very raw. Indeed, they run them through another two weeks of training in Fallujah before putting them on the street. In other parts of the country, Iraqi troops have reported that they face suspicions from American soldiers. But in Fallujah, the Iraqi jundi who speak English say they believe they get respect from the Americans, at least the ones living at their bases. First Lt. Kahdim Ali Kahdim, a battalion surgeon, cites a strong friendship with the Marine advisers. "I am trying to learn how the American officers think," he says. "I follow their suggestions, and I suggest things too. We try to find the best way for success for all."
There are two groups of marines that work with the Iraqi military in Fallujah: the Marine advisers, like Huggins, who live in the Iraqi compounds with the jundi; and the Marine rifle companies that have formal responsibility for securing Fallujah. Huggins has the fit physique and military haircut of a central casting marine, but he has an easy, if sometimes wry, smile that puts his Iraqi tutees at ease. Whenever something involving the Iraqi military goes out of kilter, he smiles and says: "You just can't make this stuff up." He possesses the most important attribute for a military adviser: patience. The Marine riflemen split their attention between conducting their own operations and training the Iraqis, and some advisers complain that the training mission sometimes gets shortchanged. Often infantrymen will not include Iraqis while they plan operations--for fear that advance word will leak out. And the riflemen may show less patience and understanding than the advisers.
In the morning sun last week, a group of Marine combat engineers, part of the rifle company, trained a group of Iraqi jundi to erect fences made of sharp concertina wire. It is the first class the engineers have taught for the Iraqis, and these marines are not impressed. "The biggest problem is the work ethic. I am used to working with marines, and marines have a different attitude," says 1st. Lt. Robert Spalla. "In the afternoon when it gets hot, the Iraqis start to whine. It is a challenge."
Night shift. By western standards, many of the raw Iraqi recruits are slackers. But there is a cultural difference at play. In the Middle East, activity stops during the hottest part of the day. And at midnight, when the primary Marine Corps shift is heading to bed, the Iraqi command posts are frequently abuzz with activity. Staff Sgt. Tom McCarty, one of the American advisers, says it is hard for many of the marines to grasp that there is an Iraqi way of doing things. Some Iraqi habits, McCarty says, should be discouraged, even if they cannot be stopped--like slipping away from post to shop at the market. But in some cases, McCarty says, the marines could learn something from the Iraqis. Though marines refuse to allow any civilians to walk past a foot patrol, the Iraqi Intervention Force patrols refuse to stop women or children. "In some ways I think the IIF have the right idea," McCarty says. "You want to interfere with the local populace as little as possible." Proximity has earned the Iraqi troops some measure of respect: "These guys are about the bravest guys around," McCarty says as he walks on patrol with the jundi . "Most guys don't see that because of the ugly-American mentality. Some guys never get beyond the bad Iraqi BO or the fact that these guys eat with their hands. But here, it's me and one other marine; my life depends on them. And I sleep good at night knowing these guys will protect me."
McCarty says the marines would be better off just giving the Iraqi military formal control of Fallujah. But Marine officers like Huggins and Col. Mark Gurganus, who oversees military operations around Fallujah, disagree. The Iraqis need more skills before control is handed over to them. Move too fast, they say, and that will set up the Iraqis for failure.
Fallujah is very much still a scarred city trying to rebuild after last November's intense battle between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents. While the bulk of the Iraqi Army's efforts go into conducting patrols and manning checkpoints, there is the occasional modest humanitarian relief mission. As about 250 schoolgirls looked on last week, the jundi unloaded supplies from the back of a Marine humvee including Beanie Babies, jump-ropes, notebooks, and pens into a classroom for the teachers to distribute. Of course, nothing in Iraq is simple: The next day, parents complained that the teachers didn't distribute the supplies and instead took them home. "You can't make this stuff up," says Huggins. "I'd like to think the semester is coming to an end and the teachers decided to save it for the fall, but I am not so naive."
As more civilians have begun returning to Fallujah, so has the scourge of the Iraq war, the improvised explosive device. The Marine advisers for the 2nd Brigade, who just recently received armored humvees, and the Iraqi soldiers, who pile in the back of small unarmored Nissan pickup trucks, have begun to avoid some of Fallujah's main streets because of the threat of bombs. Last week, the 2nd Battalion found several roadside bombs before they could be triggered. The 1st Battalion, which patrols northeast Fallujah, was not so lucky; a roadside bomb went off as a mixed patrol of Iraqi soldiers and U.S. marines passed by, killing Pfc. Joshua Klinger, 21, of Easton, Pa. The Iraqi Intervention Force is just as much a target as the Americans, in part because it is a largely Shiite group in an overwhelmingly Sunni city. (Indeed, some of the jundi say they are former members of Moqtada al-Sadr's militia. When they plastered pictures of Sadr on the company cars, the marines ordered the pictures removed.)
The growing number of civilians and the rising threat of bomb attacks have led to a growing number of confrontations between Iraqi troops and Fallujah residents. Ka-pop! At the sound of an AK-47 firing from the rear of the patrol, Master Sgt. Dan Whitton started moving toward the sound. "Escalation of force!" shouted a Marine infantryman. A white pickup truck continued to approach, and an Iraqi jundi fired a second shot, hitting the driver's door. The pickup stopped. The driver, hit in the leg, was not seriously injured and was sent to the hospital in a taxi. Back at the company base, Whitton praises the jundi : "Very good aim; he did very good."
But a similar confrontation the next day does not go so well. During another patrol, an Iraqi jundi stopped an approaching vehicle, only to have the car behind it swerve and drive forward toward the patrol. According to the Marine adviser, the jundi dropped to his knee and fired at the approaching car. But the car swerved again, and the bullet slammed into the previously stopped vehicle, killing the driver. A few hours after the incident, Huggins huddled with Capt. Jody White, who leads the Marine infantry unit that oversees this section of Fallujah, to discuss the repercussions and compensation for the victim's brother. "We have to take care of him," White said. "If not, he is a prime candidate for the insurgency." Huggins nodded: "If not actively, then passively."
Back at battalion headquarters, Huggins sat down with Lt. Col. Saleem Naem Hatab, the 2nd Battalion executive officer, to discuss the incident. The Iraqis report that indeed the family of the slain man is angry and Huggins wants to talk about delivering financial compensation. "We want to bring money to family on Wednesday," Huggins tells Hatab. "No good," he responds. "Thursday?" Huggins asks. Hatab seems not to understand. Huggins tries again: "Tomorrow, next tomorrow, next tomorrow." "Yes maybe," Hatab answers. "Not Wednesday, but Thursday. Three days?" Huggins asks. "Three days," Hatab agrees. When the interpreters are not around, such is the pace of conversations at the Iraqi base.
With light seeping through the bullet holes of last November's battle, the metal gates of Jolan homes glowed like star charts as Lieutenant Muhamad launched his midnight operation. With Huggins standing nearby, Muhamad followed his men down the alleys of the market district as they looked into courtyards for curfew violators. Above a Marine unmanned plane buzzed in the sky. The soldiers moved according to Muhamad's plan and their American lessons, stopping at phase lines and reporting their progress. The idea is to squeeze the curfew violators between a patrol advancing from the north and a cordon of soldiers stationed at the south.
The sweep netted just one curfew violator, who said he was out checking his generator at a neighboring house. The story does not ring true to the Iraqis, and under questioning he admitted he was sneaking out to play poker with a neighbor. "First he moved from that house to fix the generator," says Kahdim, the battalion doctor. "Now it's a poker game." Huggins smiles and shakes his head. Turning to Muhamad he asked, "Does anyone in Fallujah tell the truth?" In English, Muhamad answered, "No, not Fallujah."
"Tomorrow tomorrow." Despite failing to net any insurgents, Muhamad's operation is considered an important, but small, success. "This is not going to happen immediately," Capt. Tim Eichhorn, Huggins's deputy, said the morning after the raid. "As the Iraqis say, it will be 'tomorrow tomorrow.' " McCarty, listening in, agrees. "If the Iraqis say 'tomorrow tomorrow' it could be days, or it could be years," McCarty says. "And if we are going to get it right, we are going to have to stay for years." Hatab, the Iraqi battalion executive officer, has a very precise answer for when "tomorrow tomorrow" will come, and the American advisers will no longer be needed. "Five years," he says in English. "Five years, police and Army good."
Iraqi Army officers may have greater patience for a large U.S. presence than the Iraqi people--or the American public. But the Iraqi Army may have to re-evaluate its timeline. For now, though, the Iraqi troops have the help, and the training wheels remain in place.
This story appears in the June 27, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.