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Ghosts of Anbar Part III of IV


Ghosts of Anbar, Part III of IV

A Model for Success

While some Iraqi Army and Police officers searched for the suspected bomber, we searched for the bomb supposedly planted along this stretch. A culvert under a 4-lane road is a likely place.
SSG Rakene Lee set out to clear the tunnel.
There could be mines, glass or fishhooks. Americans want to know what our people are doing; I followed him in with my video camera rolling.

Watch video footage of the culvert search here:

[Note: the videoplayer may not be compatible with all browser configurations. The video can also be viewed here.]

An Iraqi soldier entered from the other side.
Topside, they searched a fresh hole near the location of the two previous bombs, but found nothing.

An IP or IA fired three shots, apparently at a car.

A short time later, as we pulled away from the suspected bomb, SSG Lee said, “Ask him what he’s shootin’ at!” And then, “Hey, don’t shoot at the cars. ’Less they shoot at us, don’t shoot at ’em.”

Falahat train and police station.

After we pulled back from the suspected bomb, SSG Lee wanted to go talk with the Police at the Falahat train/police station, so we left the small group of Marines. SSG Lee and I headed out alone with Iraqis.

SSG Lee stressed to the Police that we needed statements, so people from Falahat came in and gave written statements. Iraqis respond to a sense of justice. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated, and it is this sense of justice on an international scale that gets undermined when people are held in prisons without being charged with any crimes.

To many of the Iraqis I’ve spoken with, terrorists are fair game. Kill them. But if we kill justice while doing so, we will create terrorists out of farmers. Here the Marines are creating farmers, police officers, shepherds, and entrepreneurs out of insurgents. To do that, they have to be seen as men who respect and honor legitimate systems of government and justice.

From the counterinsurgency manual that every Marine and Soldier should read:

1-119. The presence of the rule of law is a major factor in assuring voluntary acceptance of a government’s authority and therefore its legitimacy. A government’s respect for preexisting and impersonal legal rules can provide the key to gaining it widespread, enduring societal support. Such government respect for rules—ideally ones recorded in a constitution and in laws adopted through a credible, democratic process—is the essence of the rule of law. As such, it is a powerful potential tool for counterinsurgents.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

Three suspects were detained. SSG Lee took two of the prisoners and the Iraqis took the other one elsewhere. The two taken by SSG Lee apparently truly were just shepherds. Their proximity had made them natural suspects, but SSG Lee wasn’t sure if they were involved. Seen here, their hands are not bound. They were blindfolded and told to keep their hands behind their backs. They were given water and treated respectfully.

SSG Lee made sure the Iraqis treated them well during transport, and when we returned to the tiny base, Captain Koury told the Marines not to leave any of the prisoners alone with the Iraqis. The Iraqis can be rough on prisoners—the culture can be rough—but mentoring seems to be working where it occurs.

Former insurgent turned policeman who helped during the incident.

Back at the tiny base, the blindfolds on the shepherds were freaking out a puppy that someone had adopted. The puppy was growling and barking at the shepherds, but nobody paid attention until he got irritating. Then, someone picked him up and petted him and he finally shut up. The shepherds were released soon after.

The statements that SSG Lee had insisted that the police get from villagers led to the detainment of one “Mr. R,” and raids were planned based on information he provided.

The Persuasive Power of Character

This is where Marines live, surrounded by Hesco barriers, and where some months ago a large car bomb rammed the tower closest. I was told that as the bomber was racing toward the tower, the guard jumped out the back and flew like Superman just before the detonation. He survived.

From the counterinsurgency manual that every Marine and Soldier should read:

Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be
1-149. Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained. . . . These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

Earlier, at the Falahat station, I counted 24 armed Iraqis at one time, but there may have been as many as twice that. So it was just SSG Lee, me, and dozens of armed Iraqis. Some clearly had been insurgents just months ago. Nobody was denying it. Not us, not them. SSG Lee and I could have been killed or kidnapped at any time, yet I felt not a twinge of danger other than maybe watching for an enemy car bomb or sniper, or starting when someone accidentally fired a burst from an AK, which they occasionally do.

The Marines were constantly outnumbered, yet they were pushing out there with the Iraqis, who are picking up more of the weight in many places.
Back in 2005, many Iraqi Soldiers and Police preferred to hide their identities.Today it seems that most Iraqi Soldiers and Police want their photos taken. Their confidence is growing and their attitude toward the terrorists is increasingly one of being more the hunter than the hunted.

Now I started to understand why the Army officers had been telling me the Marines are more advanced in counterinsurgency. Normal Marines have morphed into doing vintage Special Forces work. Many of our Army units are excellent at this work, but the Marines, at least these particular Marines, did seem to have an edge for it.

They were even studying Arabic in their filthy little compound. Lightweight study, but they were showing the Iraqis they were making the effort. The Iraqis appreciated it. I have yet to see an Army unit undertake such a clear effort to learn Arabic.

The Marines there live in disgusting conditions. They have two toilets. One is a tube. For more serious business, there are the small plastic baggies called WAG bags. Do your business, seal it up and put it into a garbage can. They don’t complain.

Iraqi Soldiers and Police constantly emulate Marines and Soldiers. When he got back from missions, SSG Lee would work out. The Iraqis would watch and start doing their own exercises. This form of mentoring happens naturally because Lee is just being Lee, and the young Iraqis see it and want to be it.

Iraqis in every province I have traveled all respond to strong leadership. It’s a cultural touchstone. A man like SSG Rakene Lee is not someone they would overlook. Physically, the man is amazingly strong. But what is most amazing is the strength of his moral fiber. Whatever the man talked, he walked. After all of al Qaeda’s false promises, the people here have learned a hard lesson about the true value of character.
From the counterinsurgency manual that every Marine and Soldier should read:

1-139. U.S. forces start with a built-in challenge because of their reputation for accomplishment, what some call the “man on the moon syndrome.” This refers to the expressed disbelief that a nation able to put a man on the moon cannot quickly restore basic services. U.S. agencies trying to fan enthusiasm for their efforts should avoid making unrealistic promises. In some cultures, failure to deliver promised results is automatically interpreted as deliberate deception, rather than good intentions gone awry. In other cultures, exorbitant promises are normal and people do not expect them to be kept. Effective counterinsurgents understand local norms; they use locally tailored approaches to control expectations. Managing expectations also involves demonstrating economic and political progress to show the populace how life is improving. Increasing the number of people who feel they have a stake in the success of the state and its government is a key to successful COIN operations. In the end, victory comes, in large measure, by convincing the populace that their life will be better under the HN government than under an insurgent regime.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

Over the next several days, I saw how much the Iraqis respected Rakene Lee and the other Marines who were all courageous, tactically competent, measured, and collectively and constantly telling even the Iraqis to go easy on the Iraqis. It’s people like Rakene Lee who are winning the moral high ground in Iraq. It is people like this who are devastating al Qaeda just by being themselves. Over those same several days, I would also see the Iraqi Lieutenant Hamid treat prisoners with respect and going out of his way to treat other Iraqis the way he saw Americans treating them. Lieutenant Hamid, in his young twenties, seemed to watch every move of the Marines and try to emulate them.

Lieutenant Hamid is from Sadr City. Hamid is Shia but was working in Anbar Province. (Same last name but no relation to the general arrested by LTC Crissman.) There is civil war in some areas of Iraq, but the Shia and Sunni do not automatically explode when they mix. Many Iraqis make a point to explain this to me.Many neighborhoods and families are mixed, as are military units.
Over days of operations, I found Lieutenant Hamid to be courageous, intelligent, and with natural leadership abilities. Hamid asked me to publish his photo. He said he wants al Qaeda to come to Sadr City and look for him.

One night, after a long day out in the sun, when we were all were exhausted, I sat talking with Hamid. He told me how he’d lost his girlfriend of two years. She’d been studying banking in Baghdad, and when Hamid told her of his intentions to join the Iraqi Army, she replied that not only would she not marry him, but that she would break up. He said it was a very tough decision. Hamid’s father had been a soldier in Saddam’s Army, as had other relatives including uncles, some of whom died fighting.

When he told his girlfriend that he must go to the Iraqi Army, she left him. He told me, with remarkable sadness, “Women are crazy.”

Hamid said that he was so sick for two weeks he could hardly eat, and finally he went to a hospital and a doctor gave him an IV. When Hamid returned to duty, he decided he would be a soldier for life and might not ever get married. And then he said it again, “women are crazy,” but this time we laughed.

The Marines and his own commanders think highly of Hamid.

The Marines continued to push out of the wire into meetings. It turned out there was no bomb that first day, but in another aside to this story, it had been Iraqi explosives specialists, trained by our folks, who had cleared the site, obviating the need for our Explosive Ordnance Disposal to be dispatched.

This comes straight from the new Counterinsurgency manual. The manual that everyone in the Marines and Army should read:

Some of the Best Weapons for Counterinsurgents Do Not Shoot
1-153. Counterinsurgents often achieve the most meaningful success in garnering public support and legitimacy for the HN government with activities that do not involve killing insurgents (though, again, killing clearly will often be necessary). Arguably, the decisive battle is for the people’s minds; hence synchronizing IO with efforts along the other LLOs is critical. Every action, including uses of force, must be “wrapped in a bodyguard of information.” While security is essential to setting the stage for overall progress,
lasting victory comes from a vibrant economy, political participation, and restored hope. Particularly after security has been achieved, dollars and ballots will have more important effects than bombs and bullets. This is a time when “money is ammunition.” Depending on the state of the insurgency, therefore, Soldiers and Marines should prepare to execute many nonmilitary missions to support COIN efforts. Everyone has a role in nation building, not just Department of State and civil affairs personnel.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

The Marines and some Iraqi Soldiers drove out one day to check on the “Coolie Village.” “Coolie” is a now derogatory term for manual laborers, often from Asia. A Marine wondered out loud why the Iraqis who live in Coolie Village call it Coolie Village, and I guessed (perhaps incorrectly) that the name can be traced back to the old British base nearby.

These kids seemed different than most Iraqi kids. They seemed unhappy. I asked what was wrong, and quickly realized this was the village that had been recently hit by a massive al Qaeda truck bomb. Some of the kids lost parents and family members.

When the bomb detonated, the Iraqi Army, Police and American Marines evacuated and treated the wounded from the Coolie Village. I do not know for certain that al Qaeda committed these particular murders, but the Iraqis here told me it had been an al Qaeda attack.

In August, when people were groping for answers as to why about 400 Yazidis were murdered with bombs during an attack in Nineveh, the BBC and others asked me why I thought the Yazidis had been targeted.

Al Qaeda and related groups do not need reasons. They buy press with blood.

A short distance down the road, the kids seemed less sad, but still they were not the normal joyous Iraqi kids I’ve grown accustomed to.
Hamid out among the villagers, looking for dinner.

Coolie Village was without water because the bomb detonated over a water pipe. The village was under that dark spell. They had felt the hand of evil. Lieutenant Hamid and Iraqi Soldiers, along with Marines, walked around talking with the kids and the adults.

On Patrol

Days drifted by. This morning, I went out with only two Marines, far outnumbered by the Iraqis, and felt no danger other than normal battlefield hazards.

From the Counterinsurgency manual that every Soldier and Marine should read:

The More Successful the Counterinsurgency Is, the Less Force Can Be Used and the More Risk
Must Be Accepted

1-151. This paradox is really a corollary to the previous one. As the level of insurgent violence drops, the requirements of international law and the expectations of the populace lead to a reduction in direct military actions by counterinsurgents. More reliance is placed on police work, rules of engagement may be tightened, and troops may have to exercise increased restraint. Soldiers and Marines may also have to accept more risk to maintain involvement with the people.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

The Iraqi Soldiers were better armed on this patrol than were our guys, but this is how the Marines are making it happen and clearly are winning their part of the war. Courage still counts.

While al Qaeda runs and hides, stuffing its death-cult down the throats of Iraqis in other areas, out in Anbar, once its domain, American Soldiers and Marines are increasingly able to go in small numbers out on patrols with Iraqis. This morning, only two Marines accompanied an Iraqi-led foot patrol several miles through an Iraqi village. It is important to note that at the time of this patrol, Soldiers who had recently been kidnapped elsewhere in combat were still missing. With no backup, our guys are able to perform such patrols in many parts of Iraq.

On patrol with the Iraqi Army.
No brag, just fact: these Marines are the ones to follow, and the Iraqis here seem to know this.
Look at the knife that Iraqi Soldier carries. The Marines call him “Cowboy,” and said he’s an okay soldier. Eager, but okay. Taking an American off the street and building him into a competent Marine or Soldier takes a long time. It’s no different with Iraqis.
Date Palms: Iraq has plenty of food.

When you really talk with Iraqis, their problems (outside of the war) are mostly like people’s problems all over the world. The shepherds want the wild dogs to leave their flocks alone. They don’t want al Qaeda blowing up their villages and mosques. The farmers want the rains to start at just the right time and end at just the right time, and they want to be able to sell their crops and go about life. That’s just people. From Vietnam, to India, to Afghanistan to Iraq to Britain, the hierarchy of needs does not change.

Iraqis tend to like the same things we like. Flowers, nice yards, stupid television shows. These people seemed to spend far too much time thinking about their yards than to be thinking about war.
Villagers waved and went about their morning. The Marines just faded back and let Iraqis run the show. A villager asked me to take his photo, and I handed him my camera and asked him to take my photo, and he did. Local families were out tending flocks or sweeping the porches.
This road, the heat, humidity and fruit trees reminded me a little of Florida, until the next flock of sheep with an Iraqi shepherd passed by.
I asked the shepherd if I could photograph and he was pleasant and waved okay with a big smile.
Marine Private Bo Saxon works his way through a field of “jit,” a seasonal crop raised to feed the sheep.
The Marines hardly said a word. They just watched and the Iraqi Soldiers seemed happy to have them along.
Cowboy boots.
The Iraqi Soldier called “Cowboy” was a comic from head to toe. Everything about him seemed made for a comedy, but taping the ammunition magazines together like this is a bad idea. During firefights when you get down in the mud and grit, the exposed magazine can get stuffed with gook or the magazine lips get bent and the weapon malfunctions. They are making good progress, but training is a never-ending story.
Cowboy had a compass (that he probably didn’t know how to use) embedded in his sword. Of course, the metal from the sword probably has the needle influenced to a knife-based north rather than an earth-based north.
Apple orchards take years to nurture. But once when they grow healthy, they bear fruit year after year.
Iraqis like sunflowers and sunflower seeds. Sometimes you can find where they have been lying in wait to blow us up; they leave behind twisted cigarette butts and small piles of sunflower shells.
They like flowers.
And they want to keep the crows out of the garden. Iraqis make scarecrows (Fza’aha), just like we do.

Marines and Soldiers who are in areas of Anbar where fighting has abated are sometimes criticized by commanders who think they are avoiding contact with the enemy. I have heard this complaint at least a couple dozen times.

These Marines definitely weren’t avoiding contact. They were just winning.

This was one of the most peaceful areas I have seen, yet some believe these Marines should be doing more to stir the enemy.
Back out of the village. If the people were seriously against us, that village could have wiped us out, or villagers could have planted mines or bombs in front of us. Nothing happened.

Some of our own commanders believe that units who are not “in contact” or fighting here are perhaps not out beating the bushes enough. If there is a criticism of Marines on this, I heard Marines and American Army officers say on many occasions that some of the higher Marine command is stuck in the kinetic mindset, and this is very frustrating for Marines and Soldiers who realize that WHEN NOBODY IS SHOOTING IT MEANS YOU ARE WINNING.

Crossing the wire back to “base.”

End of Part 3


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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