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thedrifter
01-10-07, 09:46 AM
Commentary
Bill Ardolino: Putting out fires in Fallujah

Bill Ardolino, The Examiner
Jan 9, 2007 8:25 PM (13 hrs ago)

WASHINGTON - Editor’s note: Blogger Bill Ardolino is embedded with a U.S. Marine unit in Iraq. He’s there to find out the truth about the U.S. war effort on the ground in Iraq. Unlike the vast majority of mainstream media journalists who stay within the Green Zone in Baghdad, Ardolino is on patrol in the streets wherever his embedded Marine unit goes. This is his second exclusive dispatch for The Examiner.

It was 11:30 a.m. on Friday in Fallujah’s Joint Coordination Center — the Marine-manned control room which monitors everything from insurgent attacks to traffic jams in the city — when a large boom reverberated from two blocks away.

The radio crackled: a M1A-1 Abrams tank was hit by a large IED while patrolling a notoriously active downtown street. The typically invulnerable behemoth was immobilized and set afire by a bomb laden with fuel accelerant, a fiery addition to the explosive arms and tactics race between terrorist insurgents and Coalition forces. The crew escaped the vehicle and made it safely to other tanks before getting burned or sniped in the ambush.

Updates poured in to the JCC: the rest of the patrol’s tanks set up a perimeter around the burning vehicle. Iraqi Army units from the 1-2-1 (1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade 1st Division) moved in to set up an outer cordon and evacuate the heavily populated area, lest the tank’s ammunition ignite and kill civilians. The Iraqi army units were hit by a second bomb while en route, killing an Iraqi lieutenant and his American Military Transition Team advisor, U.S. Army Major Mike Mundell. The Iraqi Army unit pressed on. With a cordon established and satisfied that the tank’s ammunition would not explode, Marines at the JCC radioed the Fallujah Fire Department to put out the remains of the blaze around 12:30.

But with the scene a mere 800 meters from the fire station, the Iraqis refused.

The firemen had heard reports of anti-Iraq forces in the area, and were afraid that insurgents would kill them at the scene or later retaliate against them for working with American and Iraqi government forces.

Ultimately, two tanks drove over to the station and persuaded the firemen to move to the wreck with escort. Four hours after the explosion and three hours after the call to the fire department, the blaze was finally extinguished.

The Marines manning the JCC were frustrated.

The firefighter’s frightened refusal is a microcosm of the problems faced by pro-government forces and neutral citizens in their bid to reestablish a civil society in the war-weary city.

Fallujah is sometimes characterized as a model example of Coalition work in the al-Anbar province, but a low-level insurgency still executes violent attacks and intimidates civil servants of the nascent government.

After the famed Operation al-Fajr, where Marines evacuated the city of civilians and fought and defeated al-Qaida and its splintered cohorts in tough urban fighting, the Americans have worked to rebuild and repopulate Fallujah while keeping the insurgents out. This effort has met with some success and some challenges; for while city services now exist, reconstruction is well under way and the scale of violence in Fallujah fails to rise to the level of more notorious parts of Anbar, insurgent cells are still alive and struggling against the forces of moderation and order.

Iraqi police, Iraqi army and American units responsible for providing security are still the targets of daily attacks.

The political situation is at another key turning point. Insurgents currently maintain the ability to disrupt the government because they are willing and able to pursue aggressively the two respected currencies in Iraq: money and violence.

In contrast, U.S. and Iraqi government forces are limited in their efforts to establish a competing center of power, and many locals are caught in the middle. Americans don’t have the support of — but aren’t necessarily opposed by — many locals, don’t know the language or area and lack the backing from our political leaders to meet insurgent violence with a competitive level of violence.

The Iraqi army in Fallujah is willing and able to use requisite force, but is generally mistrusted and disliked by the locals; being primarily Shiite outsiders in a notoriously insular Sunni enclave hampers their effectiveness and ability to work with the police.

Thus, the best case relies on Fallujans to take the lead in securing their city. And challenges to their effectiveness include a lack of initiative, a scarcity of strong leadership and the omnipresent fear of the insurgents, who target officials and their families with a campaign of murderous intimidation.

With the U.S. military stepping back to let local Iraqis take the lead, the latest in a string of strategies reliant on local Fallujans is today’s bid to empower the local police. The Marines have literally rebuilt the police department, recruited officers, provided equipment and established a Special Missions Group, a SWAT team-like group of hand-picked Iraqis who are just beginning offensive anti-insurgency operations within the city.

In addition to the SMG, the Marines advising the police are trying to get regular Iraqi patrolmen to establish a presence on the street, instead of their current defensive posture in the city’s police stations. But the patrolmen are afraid, and are even now taking casualties at a troubling pace.

Nonetheless, many of the new Iraqi police show great determination by showing up to work in the face of such violence.

Much will depend on an upcoming police recruiting drive, which will signal the willingness of the local tribes to back the government, the willingness of the police to develop a relationship with the Army, and the degree to which individual Iraqi police step up and display effective leadership.

Fallujans are watching and waiting, and will undoubtedly back the strong horse.
Examiner

Ellie