June 18, 2006
By JESSE HAMILTON
Courant Staff Writer
FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Ibraheem Sanad Mujbile is
The kindly looking man with white hair is always in
the background at city meetings, always carrying
his little briefcase. On one side of it, ``press'' is
written in yellow tape. On the other it's ``sahafee,''
the same thing in Arabic script.
He attends the meetings to report for Al Bishara, a
city newspaper. He wants to help Fallujah
understand itself. He describes a war within people
here, many believing in the necessity of the
foreigners and resenting them, too. Through a
translator, he says of his readers, ``They need to
know what's going on, exactly.''
He is the free press, Fallujah's journalist.
If there's hope for the future of Fallujah -- and Iraq
-- outside of grisly self-destruction, the
Plainville-based Marines in Charlie Company have
placed their bets on a trifecta: The Iraqi Army. The
Iraqi police. And the kids who don't yet have
venom in their eyes.
Fallujah is the one city where U.S. forces have tried
everything. Hands on. Hands off. Aggression.
Pacification. Release to a former Iraqi general's
control. And, finally, full invasion.
It was that climactic measure in November 2004 --
a massive, house-to-house battle to clear every
insurgent from the streets of Fallujah -- that sets
this city apart. This was the scene of the heaviest
urban fighting, the only place in Iraq where the
U.S. pressed war's reset button and started again
When the U.S. military says Fallujah has improved
since the bad days of 2003, it is right. It was the
worst city in Iraq then. Now, it might claim third
Fallujah may never have become known outside
vast Al Anbar province if not for the events at its
bridge. It doesn't look like much, just a single lane
slung low over the Euphrates River. But two years
ago the bridge's green beams became a worldwide
symbol that things were going badly in Iraq.
Photos showed portions of charred American
bodies hanging from those beams, an Iraqi crowd
beneath them, celebrating brutality.
They were the remains of four security contractors
from a company called Blackwater, and downtown
Fallujah had just consumed them. The violence sent
a tremor through America and inspired the sieges
that would, by November, empty Fallujah of
people and reduce swaths of the city to gravel.
Ibraheem says there is progress in Fallujah. He
also says of the U.S. forces, ``Any person, he
doesn't like to be occupied by someone else.'' But he
has hope that the occupiers will succeed. So he
writes down every one of their promises.
The area where the Blackwater men were killed is
now the responsibility of Charlie Company. At the
start of a routine morning patrol, the company
commander, Maj. Vaughn Ward, stops at an Iraqi
Army post to pick up some of their soldiers. He
likes to run combined patrols, getting the Iraqis to
operate like Marines.
He was looking for 10 Iraqis, but he leaves the post
with six. The Iraqis' equipment is a little
mismatched, their helmets beat up. But their
soldiering is getting better. Ward likes the way
they've been meshing with his guys, finally staying
put in a firefight and not letting loose with wild
As the patrol reaches the market area next to what
Marines call the Blackwater Bridge, shops are just
The Iraqi soldiers exchange words with people on
the street. A few are friendly. Most are cold. As
Lt. Col. Chris Landro said once while driving over
the bridge, ``We sometimes get looks that tell you:
If your charred body was here, we'd hang you from
the bridge, too.''
If there's anybody less popular than Marines in
Fallujah, it's these soldiers, outsiders from the
south of Iraq, and -- to raise tensions further --
mostly Shia Muslims in this town of Sunnis. But
the Marines hope the soldiers and Iraqi police will
soon inherit Fallujah.
``It's bad now, but hopefully it'll be good,'' Iraqi
Cpl. Saad Oteeb says through a translator. He says
he and his fellow soldiers almost have the ability to
take over, but still need help: better technology,
better weapons and more men.
Other Iraqi soldiers live at the checkpoint just west
over the Blackwater Bridge. They live next door to
a Charlie Company post and, if the Marines pulled
out, probably couldn't stand on their own. They
seem dedicated, but they have few supplies.
Drinking water often comes from the Marines. And
there is word that some of their pay isn't making it
The soldiers can't mix with the rest of the Iraqi
population, so they pass the time with each other
and their Marine neighbors. The Iraqi soldiers
swim in the Euphrates and have been known to
toss grenades into the water and scoop out the
stunned fish. They smoke hookah pipes and watch
music videos. They generally show up for work on
time. And, sometimes, they are killed.
Another Iraqi soldier, Malik Abid, a staff sergeant
with a unit in the southeast industrial part of town,
says he's been working 18 months in the city.
``There are so many terrorists,'' he says. But it was
worse before. The Iraqis should be able to take
over soon, he says, if more soldiers arrive.
The U.S. military recruited hundreds of potential
soldiers from the Fallujah area -- Sunnis who might
be more welcome in the region -- and sent them for
training. But when it was announced they wouldn't
all be working in Fallujah, most of them dropped
their gear and left.
Ibraheem: U.S. forces need to be here until Iraqis
can stand up for themselves, he says, though his
paper has been criticized as a mouthpiece for the
Americans. He attributes much of the trouble to
foreign fighters hiring local stooges. He says there
are hundreds of Syrians in the province, thousands
of Iranians. Most of the residents of Fallujah, he
says, ``don't like these people to be in their
A senior leader of the Iraqi police department sits
behind his desk in the new U.S.-built headquarters
and, through an interpreter, speaks confidently. ``I
think after three months, we can take over
everything here,'' he says. Though he needs about
twice as many officers as he has now, the
department is already able to take control of
Fallujah. No problem.
Then he pauses and says he'd prefer not to have
his name published, or his picture. He fears the
His men, too, often wear masks in public.
The Marines take it as a good sign that the Iraqi
police have been getting attacked more frequently.
It's good, they say, because it means they might
not be collaborating with the insurgents as much.
A chief concern of the Marines when working with
the Iraqi police, whom they call IPs, is that these
local men, almost all Sunnis like the rest of
Fallujah, play both sides.
Before dawn, the police had a shootout right
outside their headquarters. Long bursts of
machine-gun fire chattered through the night.
``Some bad guys attacked our patrols,'' police Maj.
Omar Ghalb Ibrahim says hours later through an
interpreter. ``Our patrols answered. We found two
terrorists.'' They had a rocket-propelled grenade
and a homemade bomb.
Marine Capt. Mark Jamouneau, who leads the U.S.
team that lives and works with the police, says
these were only the second and third insurgents
he's seen the police capture. He is disappointed
that the police had to hand them over to Marines
rather than process the case on their own. Until
they can do that, he knows, the system isn't
Jamouneau says the officers seem to be responding
better to such attacks, but they are still susceptible
to threats by the insurgency -- ``people that they
``There are IPs that are aware of the insurgency
and probably turn a blind eye toward it,'' he says.
But there are also good cops here, trying their best.
Still, Jamouneau suspects many signed on for one
of the only reliable paychecks in town. ``These
guys are survivors,'' he says.
But will they survive the days after the Marines
eventually pull out? The captain thinks it depends
on whether they can really work with the Iraqi
Army. Because if those two groups turn on each
other, it's over. Under the Marines, they live under
an uneasy truce. After the Marines, ``It can go
either way in my mind.''
Ibraheem: ``The regular people, they accept that
the situation is bad in their city.'' If the Marines left
today, the city would fall again to the insurgents, he
says -- the kind of opinion that has drawn calls
from some to shut down his paper. He says the
good people here have followed the rules and no
longer have weapons.
The Marines stop their convoy in a narrow street,
turret machine-gunners looking for attacks. The
Marines are out with the Iraqi soldiers today. They
go to one of the trucks in the convoy and swing its
doors open. Inside are dozens of plastic bags --
each calculated to make a kid's day.
They wave the first nervous children over and hand
out the bags, filled with toys and candy and, yes,
anti-insurgent leaflets. The first children take them
cautiously, as if the bags may be filled with snakes.
But it takes only moments for more to come, bold
The Marines aren't doing this for the fun of the
small-body rampage that soon begins, with cries of
``mister! mister!'' They're working this
demographic with Beanie Baby propaganda.
And they've got the Iraqis handing out much of the
treasure. The Marines want the neighborhoods to
see the Iraqi soldiers' benevolence.
A few parents drag their children back from the
horde, leading them away with stern rebukes. Staff
Sgt. Joey Davis watches one father take his son
away, and Davis chases them down, thrusting a bag
into the child's hands.
It's not all toys and candy. One beaming child
holds a large bottle of mouthwash. Others have
baby powder, toothpaste, cotton swabs, ramen
noodles. They tussle with each other for anything,
splashing through the pools of sewage in the street.
The Marines move on quickly, never staying long
enough for the insurgent network to get word out
on where they are.
Making the children smile is a serious business for
the Marines. They believe that the children like
them, and if that's true, that this will be the
generation that could change things. But they are
very young. Once they reach their teen years, most
of the youths are no longer so receptive to this
bond based on bribery.
The Marines hand out a bilingual activity book for
children. It includes safety tips ``from Iraqi soldier
Ali Saleem.'' He informs them: ``Traffic signs and
the [Iraqi security forces] are all on your street for
your protection.'' The book also reminds the
children an ancient civilization here was the first to
write down a system of laws -- though failing to
point out the result, that Babylon may have been
on more stable legal footing than today's Fallujah.
The book is titled, ``Al Anbar's Rising Generation.''
Subtitle: ``You are the future of Iraq.''
Ibraheem: ``Now, most people wonder about the
power and water.'' So he writes his stories for the
newspaper, which takes U.S. funding. He writes
about the reconstruction and the city council, ``what
they are going to do for the city.''
The meeting starts late, as most of the meetings in
this U.S.-operated town hall do, because of the
Iraqi officials' loose relationship with time. The
agenda is handed out. It's an amazing document, a
list of what could be a decade's worth of projects
for any small American city's committees,
commissions and boards. Here, it's just the ongoing
work for the Fallujah Reconstruction Committee.
There is an Army Corps of Engineers officer at the
table next to officers from a Marine civil affairs
unit, the ones who live here in the building, across
the lot from Charlie Company. Ibraheem Sanad
Mujbile is there, smiling, taking notes. But most of
those at the table are Iraqi engineers, here to update
the Americans on their progress.
The first project on today's list is a pontoon
bridge. The chief city engineer, Khaled Al-Jumily,
reminds the Americans about the contractor who
took payment of $144,000 and vanished. ``This
person, he broke his promise and didn't show up,''
Al-Jumily says. The military officers tell the
engineer the contractor may face jail if he can be
There are other troubles, Al-Jumily says. ``A lot of
contractors are making excuses to delay their jobs.''
And the most serious: The hospital needs a
generator. Power failures are killing premature
babies in their nonfunctioning incubators. The
national ministry of health isn't helping.
``This problem is very urgent for our hospital,''
A civil affairs officer responds, ``The bigger
problem is not your generator. Your bigger problem
is your relationship with the ministry.''
The engineer answers that the new minister is Shia.
Al-Jumily doesn't believe he will want to help
``We have no support from any ministry in
Baghdad,'' he says. ``I ask every day. Why? Why?''
The basic situation for the city is this: Though the
water system is in decent shape, there isn't always
fuel to run the generators that operate the pumps.
So when Fallujah residents turn the faucet on,
sometimes nothing comes out. The electricity
situation is much worse. Construction of power
stations and underground lines has started from
scratch, because the existing system is crumbling.
Sewers are still a distant dream.
Maj. Angel Ortiz, with the Army Corps of
Engineers, says his pot of money -- only one of
several dedicated to Fallujah -- holds $67.2 million
for projects. They've finished only $2.8 million
worth. About 90 percent of the projects are behind
schedule for reasons of security, contractor delays
or poor management.
Several schools are being built at $1 million each,
but the contractor has stopped work because he's
owed more than $600,000. It's supposed to come
from Iraqi's federal government, so there's little
Ortiz can do.
And, of course, Fallujah is a dangerous place to
work. Al-Jumily says he tries to convince the
people of the city that certain projects should be
spared from sabotage, that they are good for
``Sometimes we're successful in this,'' he says.
``Sometimes we're not successful.''
Ibraheem: The bad people in Fallujah have kept
The goal of today's Marine operation is to sweep
the neighborhoods along the street they call Henry,
where improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have
been chewing up convoys lately. The Marines are
out for hours. On the southern end, 2nd Platoon
finds some parts from mines and some canisters of
plastic explosive. It's bomb-making material for the
kind of IED that mangled an armored Humvee the
other day, badly injuring the four Marines inside.
On the northern end of the sweep, 1st Platoon
finds something else. ``Sir, you gotta see this,''
platoon commander Capt. Jason Pandak says to
Maj. Ward. Ward walks into the house they'd been
searching. In the back, out a rear door, there is a
boy with some kind of mental disorder. The boy is
locked behind rusted metal bars in an enclosure
with a dirt floor. His eyes are twitching back and
forth, dancing to a high-speed rhythm. He
screeches at his father, who stands nearby, smiling.
``Kid in a cage,'' says one Marine to another
outside, as if he can't believe what he's saying.
``That was a kid?'' the other asks.
Ward looks for a while and walks back out.
``There's nothing we can do,'' he tells his Marines.
There are so many things they can't control in
Fallujah. Even the limited jobs they've been
assigned are demanding enough -- keeping the city
open to military travel, teaching the Iraqi security
forces and fighting insurgents. Controlling the
insurgency without losing control of the city, is
how Ward puts it.
But what does control look like here? Is it control
when you can count on daily attacks? When
non-Iraqis can't walk outside without arms and
armor? When no matter how many suspected
insurgents are rounded up and weapons caches
seized, they still manage to hit Charlie Company
with mortars once a week, each time more accurate
Ward is a smart officer, as earnest as the rest of the
Marines from Charlie Company in his drive to
accomplish the mission. It doesn't matter that in
his heart he doesn't believe democracy can be
forced. It doesn't matter that he thinks Iraq and
Fallujah will have to decide their own fates
independent of U.S. efforts. He volunteered for the
job he's been given, even if he doesn't know how it
will turn out.
As one of his platoon leaders, Capt. Sean Miller,
put it: ``I'll read a book about this in 20 years, so I
can understand it.''
Ibraheem Sanad Mujbile, a 65-year-old native of
Fallujah, was found Tuesday in a vacant lot 10
yards from the road, not far from his newspaper
office. He had been shot four times, his blood still
oozing, his body twitching. It was 1st Platoon that
spotted him lying there. He had been fatally shot
only a couple of minutes before. Twice in the back,
twice in the head. When the Iraqi police arrived to
start their investigation, the people nearby, the
crowds in the shops and on the street, said they
didn't see anything.