New face for security in Fallujah
US Marines pull back to one northwest toehold as Iraqi allied forces begin to take control of the city.
FALLUJAH, IRAQ — As a sign of respect, US Marine Capt. Jeff Stevenson took off his dark sunglasses and helmet to meet the Iraqi top brass.
At the Fallujah railway station Tuesday - a flash point of insurgent fighting until a few days ago - the company commander received 30 Iraqi troops, members of the Iraq Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), to man the position jointly. The preplanned deal was finalized as Captain Stevenson and his Iraqi counterpart sat on a dust-covered marble bench in the station's waiting room.
"Outstanding," Stevenson told his counterpart as he heard the plan for controlling the main railway building. Marines would keep gun emplacements on either flank, a step toward handing Iraqis security control of Fallujah. By nightfall, those ICDC soldiers were patroling by foot along the main road in front of the station.
"I'm really looking forward to your forces and my forces working together," said Stevenson, of the 2nd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment, from Oceanside, Calif.
"God willing," nodded Capt. Saleh Khalaf Farhan, leaning into his handshake. "Guys, drop [your guns] down, push back," Stevenson told marines as the Iraqis filed in, holding an eclectic mix of assault and bolt-action rifles.
For US military commanders in Iraq, finding a solution to a month of violence here that has cost some 100 American and 600 Iraqi lives is crucial to overcoming dogged security problems.
On trial now are plans to put Iraqi forces - in one case, elements of former Iraqi units, led by a Hussein-era general - in control, as the US Marines shift back their positions, maintaining the cordon only in Fallujah's troubled northwest sector. US commandershope that the new force can bring calm to a city that has been in turmoil since the killing of four US security contractors March 31 prompted US offensive operations.
"I'm excited to see these guys," says Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, battalion commander of 2-1. "My orders are to integrate these folks, and we're putting an Iraqi and American face on security here."
Gen. Mohammed Latif, the overall commander of Iraqi forces in Fallujah, said deploying Iraqis here "is the last step to removing all the positions of Americans from Fallujah."
To ensure there were "no mistakes," he told Stevenson, it was critical that "we put Iraqi soldiers at the front, and your soldiers behind." General Latif said he was deploying 150 troops Tuesday at several northern positions, and had plans for 1,000 others in "fixed positions" in the north and south of the city.
"We have succeeded 100 percent," said Latif. "Fallujah is now safer than Baghdad."
The marines say they will wait and see. Though reports from journalists in Fallujah Tuesday indicated that insurgents - ubiquitous recently as they celebrated the Marine pullback - are now barely visible, few think they are gone.
Monday morning, for example, marines here had packed up but hadn't even left the parking lot of the railway station when Iraqis began moving across a swath of noman's land from the edge of the city to the station toward the abandoned US frontline posts.
Then the American orders changed, and they were told to stay. "When we came back, we saw these men, some armed, running for cover," says Cpl. Eric Snyder of Sacramento, Calif. They had left a calling card on the roof. "There was a flag that said 'Victory,' " says Snyder, peering through binoculars at the street. "They're out there," Snyder says of the insurgents. "For sure."
"I'm sure the enemy sees everything we do, then they decide when they want to shoot," says Lance Cpl. Sterling Bucholz of Los Alamos, N.M., as he hoists a sandbag onto a position.
Still, even in this frontline position, Iraqis appeared to be shifting back to normal life. Men in flowing jalabiyya robes stood around on the street, talking in front of houses pockmarked with fighting. An older man hunkered in the shade of a wall; women stepped out of their family compounds to peer around street corners. Repairmen moved an aluminum ladder from one pole to the next, trying to fix downed lines.
The Marines here are in deliberately defensive positions. Early Tuesday, Stevenson walked his forward positions, reminding gunners at sandbagged positions of the new rules of engagement.
"Anyone who shows hostile action or intent to my forces can be engaged ... you've always got to protect your force," says Lt. Col. Olson, from Cumberland, R.I. "But it's also my mind-set not to jeopardize negotiations going on. So my guys are being prudent ... and they're protecting themselves."
"There is some battle damage in the town," says Colonel Olson. "I saw fighters fighting from private homes, and those homes are battle-damaged."
Most Marine positions have now been withdrawn to allow Iraqi forces to take up security duties and root out, or at least control, anti-US guerrillas.
Among those ordered to stay Tuesday, several groups of sweating marines filled new sandbags with pack shovels.
"We're letting the [Iraqi forces] do their jobs," says Stevenson. "Every day, more and more cars and people are going back. To me, that's a sign of victory. We're not getting shot at."
The message broadcast from mosques is also becoming more favorable, despite initial declarations of victory over US forces. Marines say recent messages are: "Return to your homes, don't take up arms, the fight is over."
Outside the city, in villages - especially one through which Marines often drive - Iraqis wave. "It makes the marines feel good, so they know that not everyone is following when the insurgents say 'rise up,' " says Stevenson.
Marines here remain wary, commanders say. "They can shoot at us, put down their rifle, and walk away, and we can't shoot them," says Snyder of the tighter rules. In recent weeks, in some areas of the city, any presence at all could draw fire from ground forces or AC-130 Spectre gunships. "We don't want to stir the pot of confusion with them," says Snyder.
At this forward position, the solitude was such that marines manning a 240G, the largest caliber machine gun that any single marine can carry, made friends with a bird that hopped about on the gun, and accepted food and water.
US officers hope it will last, and that the Iraqi forces who joined them Tuesday will make a difference. "They will go on the street and tell people: 'We've worked with the Americans, and they are not the barbarians that the insurgents make them out to be,'" says Stevenson. "For us, it's a win-win situation."