On a hot day last fall, I climbed into a Humvee with a handful of marines at a combat outpost on the outskirts of Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad. We were due to meet the local police chief, after a swing through the market by the river. “We get hit there every day,” Captain Matt Tracy, the company commander, told me. “So we go there every day.”
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We drove past storefronts whose owners hastily pulled down steel shutters as we passed by. The street hadn’t fully emptied of shoppers before the first shots cracked from the rear. With no room to turn, we drove on. A few seconds later, someone shot at us from a palm grove to our right. Captain Tracy and his men jumped out of the Humvee and rushed off in pursuit, darting from tree to tree to avoid snipers. Half an hour later they returned, dripping sweat. As usual, the shooters had escaped.
Back at the combat outpost, Tracy offered me a warm Coke. “Sorry we have no cold drinks,” he said. “We had two freezers, but a prisoner died two nights ago under Iraqi police interrogation. So we shipped the body in our freezer to the States for autopsy and investigation. Then yesterday we shot a guy running a checkpoint. We put him in the other freezer until Battalion sends down an investigator. I’ll use Clorox when we get our freezers back. Right now I have to deal with an angry police chief. We’ve been asking him how his prisoner died, and he doesn’t like it.”
Tracy walked outside and escorted the compact and unsmiling police chief, Colonel Farouq, into his office.
“Every American is asking how one terrorist died,” he said angrily. “We questioned him, and he died. That’s all I say. He betrayed my police. [My police officers’] heads were tossed in the dirt in Baiji. And all you ask is how a terrorist died.”
“We go by the law,” Tracy said. “We have rules we follow.”
“Rules? What about nine bodies without heads? What about my brother’s body?” Farouq raged. “My mother complains I have lost the family because I help Americans.” Farouq’s younger brother had been killed in the ambush, his body mutilated.
“Baiji’s a hundred kilometers from here,” the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Donnellan, said. “I’ll take a force there. You can come with me.”
“When?” Farouq demanded to know.
“Higher has to coordinate,” Donnellan said. “Two or three days.”
“The bodies will be gone by then. You investigate a dead terrorist right away. But my brother has to wait,” Farouq said. “Your rules? You won’t see strong Iraqi police the American way for a hundred years.”