Fallujah: Security payoff in former insurgent stronghold
The Marines' presence is shrinking as the former insurgent bastion transforms

By James Janega

Tribune staff reporter

9:05 AM CDT, October 14, 2007


The last car bomb in Fallujah exploded in May.

On that warm evening, insurgents drove a vehicle packed with explosives into mourners for a slain local tribal leader as they wound through a ramshackle corner of the city, killing 20. The next day, Fallujah's mayor banned all vehicles from city streets.

If there were no cars, reasoned Mayor Saad Awad Rashid, there could be no car bombs.

"It stopped," said Lt. Col. William Mullen, commander of a shrinking force of U.S. Marines in the city who have watched the insurgency melt into the encircling countryside. "The 'significant events' in the city stopped. I think a lot of [the insurgents] left."

The Americans are not far behind: After surrounding the city with walls and improving security on its streets, the Marines are pulling back from the one-time insurgent bastion of Fallujah. They are redeploying to surrounding areas as the U.S. troop "surge" allows them to consolidate progress made largely by tribal leaders and local officials in security and civil works.

They leave behind a city devastated by years of fighting and starved for reconstruction, as well as questions about whether Fallujah -- a place infamous for the 2004 mob killings of four American contractors and two resulting U.S. offensives -- can now serve as a model of stability for a wider American troop withdrawal from Iraq in the months and years to come.

It has been a workable but messy solution, with successes like the reduction in car bombings coming as much from the mayor's spur-of-the-moment decisions as any military planning.

A partially trained Iraqi police force and bands of armed volunteers now work under American supervision, carefully preserving peace on streets covered by years of trash and rubble. To live under this new protection, most of Fallujah's 250,000 residents submitted fingerprints and retina scans to get identification cards that let them stay in the city.

Things are better but ...

It is a place under 24-hour lockdown, surrounded by berms and barbed wire. But that's a price Fallujah's war-weary residents say they are willing to pay for now.

"The last four months, things have been going better," said Khamis Auda Najim, a 38-year-old cabinet-maker in Fallujah's Andalus neighborhood. "But the changes are just on the security side. The street surfaces, the sewage, the electricity, the water? Those aren't as good."

U.S. forces promise those services are coming, along with U.S.-funded reconstruction projects and more money from the federal and provincial governments. But nothing in Fallujah moves quickly. As they face impatient city residents, the Americans are learning that everything is important now.

"I've been an infantry officer for 10 years. Since I've been here, I've learned more about water treatment and sewage than I've ever wanted to know," said Marine Capt. Jeff Scott McCormack, 32, a company commander from Oak Forest, Ill.

Quick transitions have been made from the U.S. forces that established security to civilian Iraqi forces deployed to preserve it. The last Iraqi army troops left a month ago; the streets are now in the hands of 1,500 volunteers and police officers, some of whom have completed abbreviated training courses.

That has allowed U.S. commanders to draw down the number of Marines in the city to about 250, down from a peak in November 2004, when thousands of troops occupied Fallujah. The city's renewed calm is one of the successes the Marines point to at a time when Corps commanders in Washington have floated the idea of pulling out of Iraq altogether, transferring their forces to Afghanistan and leaving the Iraq conflict to the U.S. Army.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking Thursday during a trip to Europe, confirmed he had been told that Marine commanders "were beginning to think about that." But he said there had been no plan presented and that the proposal represented "extremely preliminary thinking on the part of perhaps the staff in the Marine Corps."

But as the Marines turn over increasing responsibilities to Iraqi forces in Fallujah, their experience has raised questions about how much they can reproduce the success.

The security plan made its greatest single leap after the mayor banned cars. While Marines enforced the ban with hand signals and checkpoints, the new local police force reinforced it with startling volleys of gunfire over oncoming cars.

But so far, officials say, the security tactics have worked.

"Everybody thought, 'It's down to me. If I don't do it myself, it's going to be worse,'" said Rashid, the city's mayor. "People started helping the police and Americans."

Over the summer months, drugstores opened on back streets, and merchants returned to the sweltering storefronts in the teeming Jolan market area. Wares from carpet stores now join the mercantile clutter on streets beside washing machines, men's clothing, freshly butchered sheep and a wedding dress shop.

"We can walk, we can go to the store, we can go home," said Jamal Walid, who owns an electronics store in the market. "Security is getting better."

The public is quick to give credit to the Iraqi forces, and many have called for the Marines to begin their exit. But U.S. commanders are hesitant to remove too many troops too fast.

"I will never break a partnered relationship," said Col. Richard Simcock, who leads Regimental Combat Team-6, the Marine force working with Iraqis in and around the city. He vows to leave at least some American forces in Fallujah so as not to revert to a "whack-a-mole" strategy.

"[But] we continue to press out from Fallujah to prevent the enemy from getting back in there and having a [return] to the way it was a year ago," he said. "It's always a concern -- when you pull combat power away, will there be a void? Will there be an opportunity for the enemy to take advantage of that?"

Uniting against insurgents

Al Qaeda in Iraq is indeed trying to return, say Marines and rural officials. Sporadic attacks, likely staged from surrounding farmland, continue in the city, and weapons caches are found regularly in the city and on nearby farms.

Intelligence officials in Anbar province say the insurgent picture has vastly simplified in the past year as resistance groups heeded calls from local tribal leaders to unite against Al Qaeda in Iraq and temporarily join local government security forces.

Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters were forced to take refuge in the rural areas between Fallujah and Baghdad. And for the first time since the war began, U.S. Marines and their ragtag Iraqi police and volunteer allies pursued them methodically into Anbar's hinterlands.

On their patrols around Fallujah, the Marines pass through a lush, horizontal landscape of irrigation canals, palm groves, sparse clusters of cinder-block homes and crushing isolation.

Besides Fallujah, the only town of any size is Karmah, a market town-turned-armed-camp proudly overseen by the sheik of the Jumaili tribe, Mishan Abbas al-Jissam, who recently was persuaded that it was safe enough to return home from Syria after two years away. On the streets, groups of volunteers mix with new police recruits in mismatched uniforms.

To the south, the lonely farmland of the Zaidon stretches to the Euphrates, the home of families belonging to loosely aligned clans of the Zobai tribe.

American forces are so spread out here they have no permanent base. Platoons of Marines make their bases in rural farmhouses, temporarily taking over homes for a payment of $60 and a promise to leave within a few days after patrolling surrounding villages. Far from the smiles and waves of Fallujah, residents in the Zaidon seem to merely tolerate the American presence.

The sole line of defense to keep Al Qaeda in Iraq from returning to the area after the U.S. troops leave is dozens of checkpoints erected with heavy rocks, old tires and recycled concertina wire, manned by poorly paid volunteers from local farms.

"We cleared that village, and that one, and there," Ali Chiyad Nawar, 37, a farmer and checkpoint guard, told visiting Marines as he pointed to nearby clusters of farms and appealed for some kind of financial compensation. "So far, there is no money coming. We have families."

But the rolls of local security volunteers are full, the Marines tell them. And their hope is that the new volunteers won't be needed for long if local pressure is kept on Al Qaeda in Iraq and responsibility continues to be turned over to regular Iraqi security forces.