HEET, IRAQ—From an Army colonel in Baghdad’s International Zone to a private in a lonely combat outpost on the Euphrates River, I was told and retold that Anbar Province—birthplace of the Sunni insurgency and homeland of Saddam Hussein’s most fervent supporters—was a success. According to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “Anbar is a good news story.” So I went in search of a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Three months ago, there was only one road in Heet that was somewhat secure,” Warrant Officer James Maliwauki explains. “Today we drive everywhere.” A major battle swept the insurgents out, and now American forces are engaged in a long-term struggle to keep them at bay. The veteran Marine tempers his optimism: “You never know what tomorrow brings.”
Tomorrow took us half an hour outside of Heet, into the desert to the makeshift headquarters of a kind of unofficial neighborhood watch. The major industry appears to be grazing sheep by the Euphrates River. Maybe a little fishing. But with the economy not developing and the anti-government movement fading, former insurgents and their supporters are anxious to join the expanding police force—not least of all for a paycheck.
The most important security force for counterinsurgencies is not the army but the police. This is especially true in Sunni Anbar, where the Iraqi army, dominated by Shia, is viewed as a hated foreign army of occupation. Local Sunni police better understand the social and security realities. Closer to the people, their eyes and ears are in the neighborhoods.
“We’re going to take everyone’s photograph and fingerprints,” says Maliwauki, called “Gunner” by his Marines. He seems leery about the 230 recruits but is willing to register them in hope that a six-week training course will turn the motley band into legitimate policemen. Gunner clasps his hands, “Let’s get started…”
“Sir!” a Marine interrupts from the doorway, “VBIED [Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device] just went off outside General Hamid’s house and they want us there!”
This tomorrow brought horror.
“Need a casualty report,” Gunner barks to Peter, his Iraqi translator. “Get the civilians out of here. Shurta [Iraqi policemen] on the perimeter. Officers over here, now.”
Across the street, a row of buildings has collapsed. Part of a vehicle hangs from a roof, something strange and nasty dripping down. A man rushes past holding a motionless baby. On the other side of the road, in front of the general’s house, half a dozen vehicles are heavily damaged. Everywhere people are wailing, dazed. An elderly woman simply stares. On a scorched and slightly depressed patch of the road lie a truck engine, broken axle, and twisted chassis —remnants of the bomber’s craft.
A man with desperate eyes approaches and pleads for me to follow him. Inside a house, sobbing women sit on the floor forming a circle. The corpse’s eyes are locked open. Her husband rubs her arm, refusing to see she is dead.
Peter tells Gunner, “I’m hearing on the radio it’s 3 KIA and 2 WIA.” A bolt of lightning rips the sky.
“These Shurta standing here doing nothing, I want them over there searching for casualities.” Gunner points to the row of demolished buildings.
A young man wails, flapping his arms up and down. A young girl sits in a mud puddle, her brown eyes imploring.
“Sir, they’re saying 10 KIA.”
“Nothing on that yet. There is a report of a second VBIED in the area.”
Gunner yells to his staff sergeant, “We need to tighten the perimeter.”
“And we need men out in the desert—that desert is wide open!”
Peter points to a man, barefoot, mumbling, rain and tears pouring down his face. “He lost his entire family, wife and daughters.”
Huge hail balls pelt down, bouncing off our helmets and vests. Gunner throws me a quick glance—“God truly hates us today.” Then he’s off directing Iraqi policemen to search for the dead; referring the walking wounded to the corpsman; insisting the civilians be pushed back; calling for witnesses to step forward; praying another VBIED doesn’t hit; cussing the hail.
“Sir,” a young Marine says too calmly, “there’s a hand and leg over there.”
In every calamity, miracles appear. Inside a pickup truck, two men were killed instantly, while a third walked out unscathed. The weird often follows: the survivor harangues Peter, demanding compensation for his destroyed truck. A baby is pulled from a pile of large stones, crying, but fine. Its tiny skull should have been crushed. A man’s house is ringed by death and destruction, yet he walks around with a tiny scratch on the leg and one on his face. Gunner shakes his head in disbelief: “He’ll be at evening prayers tonight.” The man excitedly, obsessively tells his story: “I saw the driver pass. He was about 25 years old. He was wearing black, driving a blue truck very slow…” In one horrible flash came beautiful miracles, human strangeness, lifetime nightmares.
“Yeah,” a blond Navy corpsman laments softly, “there are two dead babies over there. And a young girl. If I got here sooner,” he pauses. “The girl was still warm, I thought maybe—if I got here just a little sooner.” His blue eyes melt into dark pain.
“Doc! Doc!” a Marine interrupts, “Over here fast!” The corpsman is gone. “Just doing my job” he will insist tonight and tomorrow night.
Staff Sergeant Todd Snyder walks past carrying a burlap bag. Blood drips from the bottom.
The casualty count climbed. Last I heard it was 15 killed and 35 wounded. Then I stopped listening. I was concentrating on not seeing the dead. Not seeing parts of the dead. Not seeing.
Back in February, with Baghdad’s furnace of sectarian hate raging and the city an urban killing field, the military came up with a new security plan: sending 30,000 more troops into small outposts in the most violent neighborhoods.
The reaction was predictable. Insurgency theory says that when your more powerful enemy applies pressure, disperse and seek an environment where he is not as dominant. Thus the surge has been met with what our soldiers call “squirts.” Large numbers of insurgents fled north to Diyal and Salah an-Din Provinces, south to Kerbala Province, west to Anbar, expanding the capital’s violence to the provincial belt. The day after the blast outside Heet, the Islamic State of Iraq, a Baghdad-based coalition that includes al-Qaeda, took credit.
The squirters are circumventing the surge while our troops are dying in greater numbers in Baghdad’s most restive neighborhoods. An update of the security plan calls for transferring troops to the newly volatile communities, but won’t this send the insurgents back to a Baghdad patrolled by fewer troops? To distant provinces? To Anbar? Two days after the blast outside Heet, an IED exploded, hitting an Army convoy.
Stewart Nusbaumer is embedded with various Marine and Army units in Iraq.