Two Ways of Looking at a War Zone

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KARMAH -- A dispatch by Rod Nordland of the New York Times asks whether the violence in Fallujah -- lately viewed as a model of an Anbar city pacified and handed over to the Iraqis -- is really in remission. His excellent report, filed from Fallujah and from the even more restive nearby town of Karmah, where I just spent two days, leaves the question unanswered but suggests a reality darker than the version the Marines describe.

The base at Karmah is small, with a platoon-sized group of Marines and considerably more Iraqi policemen. Like all Iraqi police stations it looks like a fort being reclaimed by the desert, with exploded sandbags lining walls and hot grit insinuating itself into the cracks of windows and between the boards in the watchtowers. The watchtowers look out over a troubled town. Karmah's demography (a farrago of tribal factions, none powerful enough to cut meaningful deals) and geography (at an insurgent crossroads) have kept it from ever being tamed the way Fallujah was. Fallujah is a compact and dense city, but Karmah is a small town surrounded by countryside, incapable of being raided and cleared. As a result the insurgency has continuing operating at a low level even as the rest of Anbar has beaten its Kalashnikov barrels into ploughshares. But now, just as the Marines are packing up to leave, the number of weekly incidents, though less than a couple years ago, has risen.


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On my first afternoon, I spoke with the base's senior Marine, Lt. Peter Brooks, about the chagrin his men felt at having to serve as a withdrawal force, rather than a high-intensity killing force like the more fortunate Marines currently machine-gunning Taliban in Afghanistan. They spent their days working out, conducting mock exercises with scale models in the sand next to their hut, and guarding their static and rather sleepy position.

Midway through our chat, we heard small-arms fire, full automatic and not a thousand meters from where we stood. I expected a reflex dash into response mode: a quick reaction force, sets of eyes and weapons scanning the horizon for threats. In fact the response was orderly but serene. Rather than scramble into action, Iraqi police looked around unhurriedly, eventually spied a convoy of vehicles, and determined that the automatic bursts were "probably" just a wedding party. The alarm was canceled before being sounded.

By now few foreigners in Iraq have failed to register that blasting the sky with machine-gun fire is the Iraqi chivaree, and that weddings are wonderful events -- symbols of peace and unleashed merry-making -- at which normal rules of social decorum don't apply. But if I were an Iraqi best man, I think I would probably have refrained from firing wildly into the air until my convoy traveled at least a few hundred meters past the station filled with ill-trained Iraqi cops and tightly coiled US Marines. The atmosphere seemed not so much one of safety or celebration but of impunity. Whatever the base's function, it was not for community policing, and certainly not for aggressive patrols by Marines preserving the peace from carloads of young men with weapons.

Several thoughts come to mind. First, a police force that does not respond to unexplained gunfire is not a police force. The Iraqis who express worry are right to do so, and no less a personality than Karmah's mayor, Ahmed Mkhlaf Mkaiber, told me that the prospects for peace remained uncertain, and more uncertain with the Marines' imminent withdrawal. At their base, I saw these vehicles:

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On the back of each is a normal car seat, cannibalized from a wreck. It is stained in oil and welded into place behind a mounted machine gun, which is also welded into place. The seat does not swivel, so presumably the gunner must lunge and swing his body out of the truck to fire in any direction but straight ahead. One of the men manning one of the trucks had accidentally fired off a round into the wall of the base just that morning. They have trained, and they have enough initiative to have done this welding job. But is this a police force you would trust to patrol your neighborhood?

Second, the response of the senior Marines contains a kind of logic, optimistic though it may seem. Incidents are down from the worst days of 2004, and the Status of Forces Agreement that goes into effect in a week is supposed to work to remove soldiers from Iraq's streets and close down bases -- not escalate conflict and lead to a noisier US presence than before. That could well include ceding territory that is not yet fully secure.

When Camp Baharia closes and this platoon leaves Karmah, the nearest Marines will be well over an hour away overland. Those actions now have the status of certainty, so why risk Marines' lives for a town that will be abandoned before summer's end? Consider Fallujah itself, which for months now has not had any permanent US presence in its dense city center. It remains an immensely dangerous place, but there are few attacks, not least because there are few Marines to attack. The ePRT planned to go into Fallujah, where they work closely with city officials, to visit a prominent local leaders, among them a local kebab-seller famous for his logs of lamb. The trip was nixed for security reasons. Apparently the city held up as a shining example of US success is still too unsafe for four American civilians, backed by dozens of US Marines, to get take-away. The demilitarization of Iraq is happening, so risky actions don't make sense if their effect isn't lasting.

So is Fallujah a showroom model of American success in Iraq? Only in this limited sense: it is a dangerous city in a dangerous region, but one that the Americans have left in a state just steady enough to permit a dignified departure. The same will happen soon in Karmah. The future beyond that is not certain, but is not especially bright either.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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