Two Ways of Looking at a War Zone

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.

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

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