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Old Iraqi army reborn in Fallujah

Fallujah is caught in a time warp. Iraqi soldiers wearing their crisp, olive-green army uniforms — a sight unseen since former President Saddam Hussein's government was toppled more than a year ago — now man checkpoints on roads leading into the city.
Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a former major general from Fallujah, commanded an infantry division before the war.
Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a former major general from Fallujah, commanded an infantry division before the war.Abdel Kader Saadi / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The crackle of gunfire, omnipresent here just a week ago, has been replaced with the din of car horns. Shops that had been shuttered during a month-long siege by U.S. Marines, giving this city on the Euphrates River the feel of a ghost town, have begun to reopen. Attacks on the few remaining American troops in the surrounding desert have nearly ceased.

But the seeming normalcy has come with a cost. Fallujah is now caught in a time warp. Iraqi soldiers wearing their crisp, olive-green army uniforms — a sight unseen since former president Saddam Hussein's government was toppled more than a year ago — now man checkpoints on roads leading into the city. Stout generals, their lapels adorned with stars and crossed swords, stroll around the mayor's office with the same imperious air they projected when Hussein was president.

The Iraqi soldiers are back because of an agreement that is one of the most significant military gambles in the 13-month-long U.S. occupation of Iraq. Over the past week, U.S. Marines have pulled out of positions in and around Fallujah and handed over responsibility for security to an untested militia led by a group of generals who had been barred from military service by the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq.

The agreement to give the generals a chance was negotiated by Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the top U.S. Marine commander in Iraq, who was eager to avoid an all-out attack on the resilient insurgency here. In secret discussions with Conway last month, the generals agreed to assemble a force of former soldiers to restore order to this troubled city.

Thus far, the generals appear to be opting for a strategy of cooptation instead of confrontation. They have recruited scores of young men who fought against the Marines last month, according to U.S. officials familiar with the new force, called the Fallujah Brigade. The officials said they believed that most members of the brigade participated in the fighting.

"Many of the guys who were shooting at the Marines have simply put on their old army uniforms and joined the Fallujah Brigade," said a U.S. official familiar with the new force.

Some of the Iraqi generals, including a leader of the new force, had been officers in Hussein's Republican Guard, an elite army unit dominated by Sunni Muslims and accused of human rights abuses against Shiite Muslims and Kurds.

The generals, whose return to power has angered many Shiite and Kurdish leaders, do not pretend to hew to the U.S. military message about the insurgency in Fallujah. They have joined residents in proclaiming a victory over the Marines. They have publicly dismissed American claims that foreign militants are holed up in Fallujah. They also have also urged U.S. troops to stay away from the city.

Mohammed Latif, a former official in Hussein's intelligence service who was named the brigade's leader, proclaimed to reporters on Thursday that "there are no insurgents" in Fallujah.

Conway's aides said they were not alarmed by these developments. More important, they insisted, was improving security in the city and getting Iraqis to take responsibility for restoring order. They said they were encouraged by former fighters joining the brigade. They also said that Iraqis without extensive military service would not have had sufficient clout to take charge in a city such as Fallujah, where a disproportionate number of men served in the army, particularly in the Republican Guard.

"We have a potential Iraqi solution to the problem that we didn't have 96 hours ago," Col. John Coleman, Conway's chief of staff, said in an interview Wednesday. "As long as they can continue to show positive progress toward the mission . . . we feel that we're closer to the end-state objective. The overarching aim of this [Marine] force is to basically work itself out of a job."

Although Marine commanders insisted Conway's superiors were fully briefed about the arrangement and signed off on it, the unorthodox nature of the deal has led senior officials at the Pentagon, the U.S. military command in Iraq and the civilian occupation administration to react with skepticism. "It's Conway's thing," one U.S. civilian official involved in the issue said. "Either it works out and he emerges as they guy who solved the Fallujah problem, or it turns into a big failure."

Uniquely rebellious
From the very first days of the occupation, a unique confluence of religious fervor, tribal tradition and loyalty to Hussein's government in Fallujah have created deep suspicion and outright hatred toward U.S. forces. Those sentiments hardened after a series of confrontations in which Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. troops. Over the following months, the city became a hotbed of resistance. Military convoys were subjected to so many roadside bomb attacks that Army commanders ordered supply convoys to bypass Fallujah and limited trips inside the city to patrols, raids and other essential tasks.

As early as last July, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division sought to turn over security responsibilities within the city to a municipal protection force, hoping that Iraqis would be able to deal with the insurgents. That effort failed.

When they arrived in March, Marine commanders recalled, they sought to do things differently from the Army. They said they reasoned that the Army's strategy had allowed Fallujah to become a haven for resistance fighters and a staging area for bomb attacks in and around Baghdad.

The Marine commanders added that they had always planned to conduct more aggressive raids and more frequent patrols. But after four U.S. security contractors were killed and mutilated on March 31, the Marines were ordered to shift their strategy to an all-out attack on suspected insurgent positions.

On April 5, two battalions sealed off the city. Hours later, they pushed into the city backed by tanks, attack helicopters and fighter jets. Hundreds of suspected insurgents were killed in the initial incursion, Marine commanders said.

But the operation had unforeseen consequences. Thousands of women and children sought to flee the city of 200,000, complicating military operations. Arab satellite television stations broadcast claims that hundreds of civilians had been killed by the Marines, fueling a surge of angry protests in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. By April 9, the Marines had declared a unilateral cease-fire to allow families to leave and local leaders to participate in peace talks.

On April 19, after a week of talks, a group of local civic leaders and a few Sunni politicians from Baghdad made a deal with Marine commanders. In exchange for relaxing a nighttime curfew and allowing families to return to their homes, the leaders promised to collect heavy weapons from the insurgents and hand them over to the Marines.

That never happened. All the Marines got was a pile of rusty, antiquated arms. Most of them didn't work.

The next day, an interlocutor approached Conway with an enticing offer: A group of former Iraqi army generals were willing to assemble a force that would restore order in Fallujah. Although the commanders and other U.S. officials were dealing with several other groups of Iraqis — tribal sheiks, religious leaders and Sunni politicians from Baghdad — this overture piqued Conway's interest, according to a senior Marine officer. Frustrated with the ability of the city's civilian leadership to influence the insurgents, he hoped the generals might have more clout. He scheduled a meeting with them on April 22.

Latif, a trim, graying man, arrived in a business suit. He was accompanied by Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a portly former major general from Fallujah who commanded an infantry division before the war.

Although Conway's aides wondered whether the generals had enough wasta — or personal connections — to marshal the more than 1,000 troops they promised, the Marine commander and other ranking officers who participated in the gathering were impressed with what they heard. "The conversation was in strictly military terms," Coleman recalled. "These were military professionals who understood a dynamic on the ground, who spoke in a language, although in a different native tongue than ours, that was very, very similar to how we perceived the problem."

Sitting across a table draped in brown camouflage fabric, the generals asked the Marines to hand over security responsibilities to them, saying they did not want money or equipment, Marine officials said. "Their offer had significant elements on the table that otherwise wouldn't have been an option for us, most significantly to put an Iraqi face on the solution to this problem," Coleman said. "This option brought back into the fold an opportunity for Iraqis to deal with an Iraqi problem."

Ad hoc planning
While interested in the generals' plan, Marine commanders were also planning to resume offensive operations because local leaders had not held up their end of the peace deal. On April 23, Marine units in the city were drawing up new battle plans. But by the following day, with the possibility of a deal with the generals and growing concern about the broader impact of an attack, senior officials at the White House and the Pentagon told Marine commanders to exhaust all their options before mounting another offensive, according to U.S. officials familiar with the issue.

On April 25, Marine commanders announced they would conduct joint patrols with Iraqi security forces in the city on the 29th. Marine combat officers expected the patrols to get shot at. One officer called the mission a "suicide patrol" aimed at providing justification for a renewed Marine assault.

A senior Marine officer said talks were continuing in many directions. "We had all these different tracks going on," the officer said. Describing the chaotic nature of the negotiations, he said: "Ad hoc would be kind."

As they prepared for the joint patrols, the officer said commanders were set to change the rules of engagement to allow Marines to shoot at anyone with a gun, instead of waiting for them to demonstrate hostile intent. But on April 28, commanders decided to hold off on that change because the joint patrols had been delayed for a day. Although no reason was given at the time, Marine officials said they did not want to interfere with a large meeting of tribal sheiks scheduled for the 29th. Neither the U.S. military command nor the civilian occupation authority thought that Conway was close to making a deal.

Later that evening, however, Conway did exactly that. He and the generals agreed to set up the Fallujah Brigade. Starting Friday, Conway decided that two of the four Marine battalions in the city would withdraw. In their place, 300 former Iraqi soldiers would assume control of checkpoints and perimeter positions on the city's southern border. Assuming that went well and the generals were able to recruit more soldiers, the other two Marine battalions would begin repositioning a few days later.

Senior Marine officials said Conway had been authorized to reach a deal by his superiors, including Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the overall military commander in Iraq, and Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander for the Middle East. The Marine officials said they conveyed details of the deal to both Sanchez and Abizaid.

The next morning, however, internal reports of the deal startled officials with the civilian occupation authority in Baghdad. Although they knew Conway was making arrangements to set up an Iraqi force, they were unaware of the details until the deal was done. The civilian officials were alarmed by the decision to work with former generals, who nearly a year ago had been excluded from participation in the new security forces by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq. Bremer reversed that policy only on April 23.

"It caught everyone by surprise," an official with the occupation authority in Baghdad said. "Here was this Marine general making security policy, and we knew nothing about it."

Conway has described the army as "the most respected institution in Iraq," and Marine officers have said bringing it back is a key to restoring security in the , particularly in Sunni-dominated cities such as Fallujah, where thousands of former soldiers are unemployed and disaffected. "These individuals may have seen themselves as somewhat left behind in the process of the last 12 months," Coleman said. "This is an opening and potentially an opportunity where they can contribute to the end state that the coalition is here to create."

But civilian and military officials in Baghdad remain wary. Among their biggest worries has been the schedule imposed by Conway, which called for Marine units to begin withdrawing before the new force was fully formed. "There's a lot of concern about the speed of implementation," the occupation authority official said. "We need to be very careful."

Coleman said Marine commanders opted to reposition U.S. forces right away because the Iraqi generals felt that doing so would encourage residents who had fled to return and evict insurgents who may have been holing up in their homes. "They said that some of the families would have been reticent to return until they see an Iraqi on the security perimeter," he said.

'A noble job'
Clad in their olive-green uniforms and toting AK-47 rifles, members of the Fallujah Brigade manning checkpoints leading into the city have been drawing honks and waves this week.

"We even get food and newspapers," said Maj. Majid Hamid, who is responsible for several checkpoints on the city's western fringe. "The people like to see us here."

Hamid, who spent 17 years in the army and eventually rose to command an air-defense unit, said he heard a call from a mosque loudspeaker asking for people to join the brigade. He said he signed up for a simple reason: "I don't want the American soldiers to enter our city again," he said. "That's why I'm here."

Across town in the mayor's office, hundreds of men swarmed about on Thursday trying to apply for jobs with the brigade. There were older men in officers' uniforms, former conscripts in khakis and young men in civilian clothes with no military experience. Many came looking not just to protect their city but for a job in a place where nobody else is hiring. The generals have not said how much they will pay their troops.

"I want to be a soldier again," said Yousef Ahmed, who spent three years in the Republican Guard before the war and now sits at home with nothing to do. "It is a noble job."

Nearby, former Brig. Gen. Mohammed Jassim Zobai strutted around in his old uniform, which he had kept hidden in his closet for the past year out of fear that U.S. troops would discover it during a raid and haul him in for questioning. "Now I can wear this with pride," he said. "It is a wonderful day."

As of Thursday, leaders of the brigade said they had assembled more than 1,000 soldiers and would continue expanding the force. The troops have not yet begun patrols inside the city, but have been deployed along the outskirts, supposedly to prevent insurgents from entering or leaving.

But at Hamid's checkpoint, enforcement was a lax affair. His soldiers failed to stop a single vehicle during an hour-long visit.

"We're from this city," he said. "We know who is suspicious and who isn't."

Marine commanders said they intended to test the new brigade's success in combating the insurgency in a week or two, when they plan to send a convoy through the center of the city. "We're going to see whether anything has changed," one officer said. "If not, we'll just have to go back to where we were."