View Full Version : A Gruesome Past, An Explosive Future

06-18-06, 11:48 AM
A Gruesome Past, An Explosive Future

Special Report: On The Ground With Charlie Company

Story By JESSE HAMILTON Photos By TOM BROWN The Hartford Courant

June 18 2006

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Ibraheem Sanad Mujbile is everywhere.

The kindly looking man with white hair is always in the background at city meetings, always carrying his little briefcase. On one side of it, "press" is written in yellow tape. On the other it's "sahafee," the same thing in Arabic script.

He attends the meetings to report for Al Bishara, a city newspaper. He wants to help Fallujah understand itself. He describes a war within people here, many believing in the necessity of the foreigners and resenting them, too. Through a translator, he says of his readers, "They need to know what's going on, exactly."

He is the free press, Fallujah's journalist.

If there's hope for the future of Fallujah - and Iraq - outside of grisly self-destruction, the Plainville-based Marines in Charlie Company have placed their bets on a trifecta: The Iraqi Army. The Iraqi police. And the kids who don't yet have venom in their eyes.

Fallujah is the one city where U.S. forces have tried everything. Hands on. Hands off. Aggression. Pacification. Release to a former Iraqi general's control. And, finally, full invasion.

It was that climactic measure in November 2004 - a massive, house-to-house battle to clear every insurgent from the streets of Fallujah - that sets this city apart. This was the scene of the heaviest urban fighting, the only place in Iraq where the U.S. pressed war's reset button and started again from zero.

When the U.S. military says Fallujah has improved since the bad days of 2003, it is right. It was the worst city in Iraq then. Now, it might claim third place.

Fallujah may never have become known outside vast Al Anbar province if not for the events at its bridge. It doesn't look like much, just a single lane slung low over the Euphrates River. But two years ago the bridge's green beams became a worldwide symbol that things were going badly in Iraq. Photos showed portions of charred American bodies hanging from those beams, an Iraqi crowd beneath them, celebrating brutality.

They were the remains of four security contractors from a company called Blackwater, and downtown Fallujah had just consumed them. The violence sent a tremor through America and inspired the sieges that would, by November, empty Fallujah of people and reduce swaths of the city to gravel.

Ibraheem says there is progress in Fallujah. He also says of the U.S. forces, "Any person, he doesn't like to be occupied by someone else." But he has hope that the occupiers will succeed. So he writes down every one of their promises.


The area where the Blackwater men were killed is now the responsibility of Charlie Company. At the start of a routine morning patrol, the company commander, Maj. Vaughn Ward, stops at an Iraqi Army post to pick up some of their soldiers. He likes to run combined patrols, getting the Iraqis to operate like Marines.

He was looking for 10 Iraqis, but he leaves the post with six. The Iraqis' equipment is a little mismatched, their helmets beat up. But their soldiering is getting better. Ward likes the way they've been meshing with his guys, finally staying put in a firefight and not letting loose with wild gunfire.

As the patrol reaches the market area next to what Marines call the Blackwater Bridge, shops are just opening.

The Iraqi soldiers exchange words with people on the street. A few are friendly. Most are cold. As Lt. Col. Chris Landro said once while driving over the bridge, "We sometimes get looks that tell you: If your charred body was here, we'd hang you from the bridge, too."

If there's anybody less popular than Marines in Fallujah, it's these soldiers, outsiders from the south of Iraq, and - to raise tensions further - mostly Shia Muslims in this town of Sunnis. But the Marines hope the soldiers and Iraqi police will soon inherit Fallujah.

"It's bad now, but hopefully it'll be good," Iraqi Cpl. Saad Oteeb says through a translator. He says he and his fellow soldiers almost have the ability to take over, but still need help: better technology, better weapons and more men.

Other Iraqi soldiers live at the checkpoint just west over the Blackwater Bridge. They live next door to a Charlie Company post and, if the Marines pulled out, probably couldn't stand on their own. They seem dedicated, but they have few supplies. Drinking water often comes from the Marines. And there is word that some of their pay isn't making it to them.

The soldiers can't mix with the rest of the Iraqi population, so they pass the time with each other and their Marine neighbors. The Iraqi soldiers swim in the Euphrates and have been known to toss grenades into the water and scoop out the stunned fish. They smoke hookah pipes and watch music videos. They generally show up for work on time. And, sometimes, they are killed.

Another Iraqi soldier, Malik Abid, a staff sergeant with a unit in the southeast industrial part of town, says he's been working 18 months in the city. "There are so many terrorists," he says. But it was worse before. The Iraqis should be able to take over soon, he says, if more soldiers arrive.

The U.S. military recruited hundreds of potential soldiers from the Fallujah area - Sunnis who might be more welcome in the region - and sent them for training. But when it was announced they wouldn't all be working in Fallujah, most of them dropped their gear and left.

Ibraheem: U.S. forces need to be here until Iraqis can stand up for themselves, he says, though his paper has been criticized as a mouthpiece for the Americans. He attributes much of the trouble to foreign fighters hiring local stooges. He says there are hundreds of Syrians in the province, thousands of Iranians. Most of the residents of Fallujah, he says, "don't like these people to be in their country."


A senior leader of the Iraqi police department sits behind his desk in the new U.S.-built headquarters and, through an interpreter, speaks confidently. "I think after three months, we can take over everything here," he says. Though he needs about twice as many officers as he has now, the department is already able to take control of Fallujah. No problem.

Then he pauses and says he'd prefer not to have his name published, or his picture. He fears the terrorists.

His men, too, often wear masks in public.

The Marines take it as a good sign that the Iraqi police have been getting attacked more frequently. It's good, they say, because it means they might not be collaborating with the insurgents as much.

A chief concern of the Marines when working with the Iraqi police, whom they call IPs, is that these local men, almost all Sunnis like the rest of Fallujah, play both sides.

Before dawn, the police had a shootout right outside their headquarters. Long bursts of machine-gun fire chattered through the night.

"Some bad guys attacked our patrols," police Maj. Omar Ghalb Ibrahim says hours later through an interpreter. "Our patrols answered. We found two terrorists." They had a rocket-propelled grenade and a homemade bomb.

Marine Capt. Mark Jamouneau, who leads the U.S. team that lives and works with the police, says these were only the second and third insurgents he's seen the police capture. He is disappointed that the police had to hand them over to Marines rather than process the case on their own. Until they can do that, he knows, the system isn't working fully.

Jamouneau says the officers seem to be responding better to such attacks, but they are still susceptible to threats by the insurgency - "people that they know."

"There are IPs that are aware of the insurgency and probably turn a blind eye toward it," he says. But there are also good cops here, trying their best.

Still, Jamouneau suspects many signed on for one of the only reliable paychecks in town. "These guys are survivors," he says.

But will they survive the days after the Marines eventually pull out? The captain thinks it depends on whether they can really work with the Iraqi Army. Because if those two groups turn on each other, it's over. Under the Marines, they live under an uneasy truce. After the Marines, "It can go either way in my mind."

Ibraheem: "The regular people, they accept that the situation is bad in their city." If the Marines left today, the city would fall again to the insurgents, he says - the kind of opinion that has drawn calls from some to shut down his paper. He says the good people here have followed the rules and no longer have weapons.


The Marines stop their convoy in a narrow street, turret machine-gunners looking for attacks. The Marines are out with the Iraqi soldiers today. They go to one of the trucks in the convoy and swing its doors open. Inside are dozens of plastic bags - each calculated to make a kid's day.

They wave the first nervous children over and hand out the bags, filled with toys and candy and, yes, anti-insurgent leaflets. The first children take them cautiously, as if the bags may be filled with snakes. But it takes only moments for more to come, bold and demanding.

The Marines aren't doing this for the fun of the small-body rampage that soon begins, with cries of "mister! mister!" They're working this demographic with Beanie Baby propaganda.

And they've got the Iraqis handing out much of the treasure. The Marines want the neighborhoods to see the Iraqi soldiers' benevolence.

A few parents drag their children back from the horde, leading them away with stern rebukes. Staff Sgt. Joey Davis watches one father take his son away, and Davis chases them down, thrusting a bag into the child's hands.

It's not all toys and candy. One beaming child holds a large bottle of mouthwash. Others have baby powder, toothpaste, cotton swabs, ramen noodles. They tussle with each other for anything, splashing through the pools of sewage in the street.

The Marines move on quickly, never staying long enough for the insurgent network to get word out on where they are.

Making the children smile is a serious business for the Marines. They believe that the children like them, and if that's true, that this will be the generation that could change things. But they are very young. Once they reach their teen years, most of the youths are no longer so receptive to this bond based on bribery.

The Marines hand out a bilingual activity book for children. It includes safety tips "from Iraqi soldier Ali Saleem." He informs them: "Traffic signs and the [Iraqi security forces] are all on your street for your protection." The book also reminds the children an ancient civilization here was the first to write down a system of laws - though failing to point out the result, that Babylon may have been on more stable legal footing than today's Fallujah.

The book is titled, "Al Anbar's Rising Generation." Subtitle: "You are the future of Iraq."

Ibraheem: "Now, most people wonder about the power and water." So he writes his stories for the newspaper, which takes U.S. funding. He writes about the reconstruction and the city council, "what they are going to do for the city."


The meeting starts late, as most of the meetings in this U.S.-operated town hall do, because of the Iraqi officials' loose relationship with time. The agenda is handed out. It's an amazing document, a list of what could be a decade's worth of projects for any small American city's committees, commissions and boards. Here, it's just the ongoing work for the Fallujah Reconstruction Committee.

There is an Army Corps of Engineers officer at the table next to officers from a Marine civil affairs unit, the ones who live here in the building, across the lot from Charlie Company. Ibraheem Sanad Mujbile is there, smiling, taking notes. But most of those at the table are Iraqi engineers, here to update the Americans on their progress.

The first project on today's list is a pontoon bridge. The chief city engineer, Khaled Al-Jumily, reminds the Americans about the contractor who took payment of $144,000 and vanished. "This person, he broke his promise and didn't show up," Al-Jumily says. The military officers tell the engineer the contractor may face jail if he can be found.

There are other troubles, Al-Jumily says. "A lot of contractors are making excuses to delay their jobs."

And the most serious: The hospital needs a generator. Power failures are killing premature babies in their nonfunctioning incubators. The national ministry of health isn't helping.

"This problem is very urgent for our hospital," Al-Jumily says.

A civil affairs officer responds, "The bigger problem is not your generator. Your bigger problem is your relationship with the ministry."

The engineer answers that the new minister is Shia. Al-Jumily doesn't believe he will want to help Sunnis.

"We have no support from any ministry in Baghdad," he says. "I ask every day. Why? Why?"

The basic situation for the city is this: Though the water system is in decent shape, there isn't always fuel to run the generators that operate the pumps. So when Fallujah residents turn the faucet on, sometimes nothing comes out. The electricity situation is much worse. Construction of power stations and underground lines has started from scratch, because the existing system is crumbling. Sewers are still a distant dream.

Maj. Angel Ortiz, with the Army Corps of Engineers, says his pot of money - only one of several dedicated to Fallujah - holds $67.2 million for projects. They've finished only $2.8 million worth. About 90 percent of the projects are behind schedule for reasons of security, contractor delays or poor management.

Several schools are being built at $1 million each, but the contractor has stopped work because he's owed more than $600,000. It's supposed to come from Iraqi's federal government, so there's little Ortiz can do.

And, of course, Fallujah is a dangerous place to work. Al-Jumily says he tries to convince the people of the city that certain projects should be spared from sabotage, that they are good for everybody.

"Sometimes we're successful in this," he says. "Sometimes we're not successful."

Ibraheem: The bad people in Fallujah have kept their weapons.


The goal of today's Marine operation is to sweep the neighborhoods along the street they call Henry, where improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have been chewing up convoys lately. The Marines are out for hours. On the southern end, 2nd Platoon finds some parts from mines and some canisters of plastic explosive. It's bomb-making material for the kind of IED that mangled an armored Humvee the other day, badly injuring the four Marines inside.

On the northern end of the sweep, 1st Platoon finds something else. "Sir, you gotta see this," platoon commander Capt. Jason Pandak says to Maj. Ward. Ward walks into the house they'd been searching. In the back, out a rear door, there is a boy with some kind of mental disorder. The boy is locked behind rusted metal bars in an enclosure with a dirt floor. His eyes are twitching back and forth, dancing to a high-speed rhythm. He screeches at his father, who stands nearby, smiling.

"Kid in a cage," says one Marine to another outside, as if he can't believe what he's saying.

"That was a kid?" the other asks.

Ward looks for a while and walks back out. "There's nothing we can do," he tells his Marines.

There are so many things they can't control in Fallujah. Even the limited jobs they've been assigned are demanding enough - keeping the city open to military travel, teaching the Iraqi security forces and fighting insurgents. Controlling the insurgency without losing control of the city, is how Ward puts it.

But what does control look like here? Is it control when you can count on daily attacks? When non-Iraqis can't walk outside without arms and armor? When no matter how many suspected insurgents are rounded up and weapons caches seized, they still manage to hit Charlie Company with mortars once a week, each time more accurate and damaging?

Ward is a smart officer, as earnest as the rest of the Marines from Charlie Company in his drive to accomplish the mission. It doesn't matter that in his heart he doesn't believe democracy can be forced. It doesn't matter that he thinks Iraq and Fallujah will have to decide their own fates independent of U.S. efforts. He volunteered for the job he's been given, even if he doesn't know how it will turn out.

As one of his platoon leaders, Capt. Sean Miller, put it: "I'll read a book about this in 20 years, so I can understand it."

Ibraheem Sanad Mujbile, a 65-year-old native of Fallujah, was found Tuesday in a vacant lot 10 yards from the road, not far from his newspaper office. He had been shot four times, his blood still oozing, his body twitching. It was 1st Platoon that spotted him lying there. He had been fatally shot only a couple of minutes before. Twice in the back, twice in the head. When the Iraqi police arrived to start their investigation, the people nearby, the crowds in the shops and on the street, said they didn't see anything.

Reporter Jesse Hamilton and photographer Tom Brown are scheduled to leave Fallujah today and return to Connecticut.


06-18-06, 11:49 AM
Healthy Suspicion

On The Ground With Charlie Company: Dispatch

Courant Staff Writer

June 17 2006

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Nobody comes up this driveway. It's clearly marked, in Arabic and English. But there he is, a man walking steadily toward the defensive post on Charlie Company's driveway.

There's an acronym for what comes next: EOF. Escalation of force.

The Marine at the post yells for the man to stop, in Arabic. The man seems to hear, and he stops for a moment. But then he starts walking again, coming closer than the Marine can allow, in a place just a few dozen yards from where a vest bomber killed eight police recruits not much more than a month ago.

So the Marine has to move to the next step, a step drilled into his head with numbing regularity. He raises his weapon and threatens.

The man keeps coming toward the barrel of the rifle, only 15 yards away. So the Marine is pushed toward the next step.

The warning fire hits the pavement in front of the man. A round skips up and creases his leg. He's wounded, no longer a threat, so the last step won't be necessary.

The man turns out to be an Iraqi police officer, out of uniform. He's taken to the surgical hospital at Camp Fallujah, where he's treated and sent home.

He's fine. But he should have known better.

Capt. Mark Jamouneau, a Marine who runs a team that works with the Iraqi police, said the response from a police commander was an unsympathetic: "Good; shoot him."

The Marines have been at their base in the center of Fallujah for a while now, and the police, whose headquarters is next- door, should know what areas are off limits - unless they are testing the Marines, which is certainly on the minds of Charlie Company leaders who already suspect there are Iraqi police working with the insurgents.

In Fallujah, suspicion can be healthy. Especially when, the very next day, another Iraqi police officer comes walking up the same driveway.

Reporter Jesse Hamilton and photographer Tom Brown are embedded with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, in Fallujah.