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.”
A hundred years would seem a harsh judgment, were it not for our performance in Iraq to date. In the fourth year of war, America teeters on the verge of defeat. By the fourth year of World War II, victory gleamed on the horizon. The Korean War was over inside four years. Even in Vietnam, the Viet Cong had been decimated by the fourth year, and the conflict had morphed from guerrilla warfare into a conventional slugfest against the North.
We are all too familiar with the strategic blunders that have characterized our engagement in Iraq. Still, some 500,000 American and Iraqi military and police personnel are confronting roughly 25,000 Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen—a twenty-to-one edge that should give us a clear advantage. In terms of spending, the disparity is even greater: $320 billion versus less than $200 million. Yet despite being exponentially outnumbered and outspent, the forces of murder and chaos seem to be winning.
Is it too late to reverse this trend? Maybe not—if we make major tactical adjustments soon. In exploring this question, I made two extended visits to Iraq last summer and fall, during which I accompanied ten American and eight Iraqi battalions on operations. I concentrated on Baghdad and Anbar province, the heart of the insurgency, and I talked to everyone I could—from soldiers on the front line to Iraqi politicians and American military leaders at the highest levels, including Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and General George Casey Jr., our top commander there.
Here’s one thing just about everyone told me: Iraq is not a military battlefield; it is a series of intense police actions, centered in Baghdad and a dozen key cities to the west and north, where Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen, both sides dressed as civilians, control the streets. American and Iraqi soldiers have no idea who their enemies are. And in the rare instances when insurgents are actually captured, American rules and a corrupt Iraqi judicial system have converged to ensure that most are released.
A year ago, the abiding policy question was, How can the United States leave Iraq when there is no functioning army in place to keep the peace? The future of Iraq depends no less today than it did a year ago on a viable Iraqi security force. But the issue may be less a military one—in the conventional sense of clashing armies—than a policing one. If the insurgents are to be defeated, it will have to be by local tough guys in town after town, as happened in the American West in the 1870s. These guys will likely be more ruthless than we would like. But if we don’t let them establish some control—and give them help in maintaining it—any strategies for phased withdrawals or grand political bargains or international constabularies will be irrelevant. To achieve some sort of stability, we must change the way we work with the Iraqi military and police at the local level.
In combating an insurgency, the police are a crucial force. After Baghdad fell in 2003, Ambassador Paul Bremer, the president’s emissary to Iraq, tried ineffectually to turn sad-sack local cops into the primary force for establishing order. In 2004 and 2005, the insurgents, led by al-Qaeda extremists, carried out ruthless attacks that drove those police forces, poorly led and haphazardly trained, to the sidelines. Torture, mass executions, and public beheadings were common. Throughout the Sunni Triangle, the police hid in their stations and refused to get involved, casting a blind eye to the insurgents burrowed in like ticks among the population. Police forces in major Sunni cities like Fallujah and Ramadi made as few as ten arrests a month. “No police chief in the U.S. could keep his job with such performance,” Ralph Morten, a senior detective in the Los Angeles Police Department on his sixth visit to Iraq, told me.
But the police are reticent for good reason: they are deathly afraid of the insurgents, who threaten to kill them and their families for cooperating with the Americans or the Maliki government. Not long ago in Fallujah, the deputy police chief was executed. When the police arrested two men for the murder, a local judge hurriedly dismissed the charges. Half the police force walked off the job in protest, explaining to American troops that this was why they didn’t make arrests. Colonel Larry Nicholson, the top marine in Fallujah, says he understands why the police weren’t making more arrests. “First, they have to stay alive,” he told me. “The new chief has told his men to live in the barracks and have their families live out of town. You can’t be a decent cop in this city and expect to go home at night.”
Meanwhile, according to U.S. military sources, the Iraqi Interior Ministry permitted Shia militias to infiltrate the police throughout Baghdad and southern Iraq, and then let criminals and Shia death squads operate with impunity—and in some cases actively cooperated with them. (Prime Minister Maliki, himself a Shiite, told me that Bremer had caused the police failure by recruiting “bad elements” and providing poor training.)
As a result, the police in Baghdad are among the most wretched in the world. New York City cops send some 26,000 criminals to prison every year; in Baghdad, with twenty times the murder rate, that number is at best 2,000. (New York City’s population is 8 million; Baghdad’s is about 6 million.) During the month I spent in Iraq in the fall, U.S. forces in Baghdad killed 110 Iraqis and detained about 1,100. Lieutenant Colonel Brian Winski, whose battalion guards the southern approach to the city, told me that he knew of police chiefs who had been relieved of duty by the Maliki government for cracking down on militia members.
In the Sunni district of Doura, in southern Baghdad, I found row upon row of middle-class houses with Humvees parked at the end of every other street. “Our presence has cut down the murders,” Colonel Michael Beech told me with evident pride. “We can’t do it for them forever, though. The question is whether the Iraqi politicians want their own police to succeed.”
Beech had deployed one American company (140 men) and an Iraqi police company for every two city blocks throughout Doura, an area comprising roughly 1,300 houses and 17,000 people. At that rate, it would take a force of about 100,000 to control the entire city. At the time of my visit, there were only 14,000 Americans and 40,000 Iraqi police in Baghdad.
In the United States, a cop who pulls you over calls up your record and finds out where and when you were last stopped, and what the charge was. The Chicago police carry a device that takes fingerprints and transmits them over the radio, with the results of a database search received in minutes.
In Iraq, the police have no detective equipment; no reliable identification system has been widely fielded. As a result, American soldiers on patrol futilely call in the phonetic spelling of Iraqi names on whatever ID card they are handed. (Between 1966 and 1968, by contrast, the South Vietnamese government implemented a labor-intensive census program to register every military-age male in every hamlet.) A few enterprising American rifle companies have conducted their own independent censuses, employing rudimentary spreadsheets and personal digital cameras. But no central information system exists.
This is the greatest technical failure of the war. For all of our efforts, we have ignored one of the most fundamental axioms of counterinsurgency warfare: an insurgency cannot be defeated if the enemy cannot be identified.
Nor can it be defeated if those enemies who are successfully identified cannot be effectively imprisoned. Last May in south Baghdad, an American battalion proudly showed me photos of six Shiites captured with blood on their hands, weapons and shell casings in their car, and a dead Sunni a few blocks away. In September, a judge released all six.
Iraqi police do not make arrests that stick. More than 80 percent of the Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen detained by American and Iraqi forces are set free. In Fallujah, Major Vaughn Ward’s men detained 120 suspects between March and September. Twenty-four were sent to prison. The rest walked free because judges deemed the evidence against them insufficient. (Prime Minister Maliki compounded matters when, in an effort to pave the way toward political negotiations over the summer, he released thousands of prisoners from jails in Baghdad.)
Some senior American officers told me that the rearrest rate of released prisoners was only 6 percent, compared with a recidivism rate of 65 percent in the United States. So either the Iraqi insurgents were ten times as likely as American ex-convicts to see the error of their ways, or they found it all too easy to evade justice.
American troops mockingly refer to arrests of insurgents as “catch and release.” Some Iraqi police are similarly frustrated. Colonel Sheban is a tough police chief in the restive town of Baghdadi on the upper Euphrates. He lost one brother to the insurgents a month before I met him, and a second brother a few days after I left. His message to me was simple: “I got Jamil Daham. He killed an American. Insurgents go to jail for six, seven months and start again. I want American people to know they should stay in jail. I can recognize bad guys.”
Acting on instinct, Sheban had indeed arrested an insurgent who later was linked to the killing of an American. Of course, to authorize an arrest based on instinct or suspicion is to invite abuse. Yet to insist upon strict evidentiary rules in the midst of a civil war and under a government racked with corruption is to guarantee failure. “Too many Iraqi judges let the terrorists go free,” General Casey told me. Major General M. Roger Peterson, the American in charge of police training, agreed. “We’re not imprisoning the way the situation demands,” he said.
Meticulous review procedures introduced after Abu Ghraib have proved favorable to the insurgents. Any Iraqi detained is brought to an American lawyer at the battalion level; two American soldiers have to fill out sworn arrest affidavits; physical evidence is bagged, and pictures of the “crime” scene are taken. The battalion then has eighteen hours to decide whether the evidence is sufficient to send the detainee to the brigade level. The brigade can hold the detainee for up to eighteen days, at which point it must release him or send him on to a detention facility where a committee reviews the evidence for the third time. If all of these hurdles are passed, the detainee is kept in jail until an Iraqi judge hears the case (giving it a fourth review).
The U.S. Constitution provides for the suspension of habeas corpus in the event of rebellion. During the Civil War, President Lincoln decreed that the police and the Army did not have to show a judge evidence on which they had imprisoned someone. In subsequent wars, prisoners of war and captured guerrillas alike have been held until the cessation of hostilities.
In Iraq, the Americans’ insistence upon strict rules of evidence in the midst of a shooting war has given significant advantages to the insurgents. By posing as civilians, they make themselves hard to identify among the populace. If captured, they are guaranteed civil rights that make detaining them all but impossible, whereas enemy soldiers in uniform would simply be held until hostilities ceased. In Baghdad, every 100 police make eight arrests a year that result in prison time. In New York City, every 100 police make 120 such arrests. If seventy civilians were being murdered each day in Manhattan, New Yorkers would be unlikely to call for stricter rules of evidence than those currently in place.
When U.S. military manpower and technology work hand in hand with local Iraqi police, the combination can be effective. I have seen several successful joint efforts.
Every day, aerial cameras hover over Anbar; some are mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and others on helicopters; some are infrared, others stream down video in sharp, brilliant colors. I was in a company operations center in Haditha when Captain Bert Lewis, the air officer, pointed at a screen showing a video feed.
“Check that dude next to the white Nissan,” he said, speaking into a handset.
An operator several miles away zoomed in the UAV camera. On the screen, we watched a man in a white dishdasha hastily scooping dirt over a boxy package, while cars passed by without slowing down.
“FedEx delivery,” Lewis said, to general laughter. “I don’t believe this dude.” The Nissan drove away as the man finished packing dirt around the improvised explosive device, or IED.
“Follow the car or the man-dress?” Lewis asked.
“Nail that sucker,” Lieutenant Joshua Booth said. (Booth was shot and killed the following week, leading his platoon down a city street.)
The man looked up and down the street, and then ran south. The picture tilted, then zoomed in, holding him in the center of the frame. A series of black numbers scrolled along the right edge, updating the GPS coordinates. The target, solidly built and in his mid-thirties, had left the road and was now running along the riverbank.
At this point, a half-dozen marines had clustered around the screen to watch. The man was running hard, back rigid, chest out. “Look, he’s doubling back.” He kept looking over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. He must have heard the UAV’s high-pitched whine—it’s like the drone of a monster mosquito—but he didn’t look up. He ran down a path between houses, across a field, and back to the riverbank. After fifteen minutes, he slowed to a walk, then stopped and stood with his hands on his knees.
“Sucking wind. Get the coordinates to the QRF.”
As a Quick Reaction Force patrol closed on the GPS coordinates, the fugitive sat down in the shade of a palm tree, beckoning to someone on the river. Just as a square-nosed wooden skiff punted up to the man, the QRF, mounted in two Humvees, converged on the riverbank. The man scrambled to his feet, saw he had no place to run, and half-raised his arms to show he had no weapon.
“A twofer! All right! Send a squad to pick those guys up and bring them here.”
The Iraqis on duty as liaisons in the op center watched the video, looked at the computer screens, and hopped into their tinny pickups to follow the heavily armored American Humvees roaring off to pick up the two prisoners.
The chase was an impressive demonstration of American gear. But technology alone cannot win the war; we need the police. “The cops match names and faces,” Kevin Austin, thirty-five, an International Police Liaison Officer who is a member of the California Highway Patrol, told me. “We could never do that. It’s based on local knowledge.”
I asked Austin how the police should go about using local knowledge to defeat an insurgency. “First,” he said, “develop sources on the streets. Understand the social networks, who lives where. Second, grill one insurgent until he betrays another. Then move fast to make the next arrest. Third, impose fines for criminal offenses. The foot soldiers are in this for money. One hundred bucks to emplace an IED is not worth having your car or house confiscated.”
But carrying out these steps is not easy. In Baghdad, the police are disloyal; in Fallujah, they are struggling to stay alive; and in Haditha, they are starved for resources. So how can the war be won?
Once last summer and once in the fall, General Casey sat down with me and laid out his strategy. He was well aware of the litany of problems. “Look,” he said, “we’re only 75 percent of the way to standing up the Iraqi units as a counterinsurgency force. Then they need a year of seasoning before being on their own.” That pointed toward operational readiness at the end of 2007.
Last year was supposed to have been when the American military turned its attention to the Iraqi police. Casey’s plan was derailed by the eruption of the Shia death squads. He had to rush American forces into Baghdad to prevent its collapse, leaving fewer American units in Anbar, the heart of the Sunni insurgency.
Casey, who has been in command for two and a half years, guards his counsel, reflects carefully before issuing orders, and projects composure. He prowls the battlefields to assess for himself what’s going on. I first saw him in 2004, inside the shell-pocked city of Ramadi. He was sitting in a corner, listening to a squad leader. He meets often with battalion commanders to discuss the campaign plan.
“I get it from all sides,” Casey joked recently. “Washington, the prime minister, the Sunnis, the Shiites. Hell, people even complained to me when the pope said something about Muslims. I never expected the pope to add to my problems!”
There are striking parallels between Casey and General Creighton Abrams, the four-star Army general who was sent to Vietnam in 1967 to rescue a failing effort there. Abrams changed the strategy from search-and-destroy to counterinsurgency. Casey too switched from offensive operations to counterinsurgency. I hope it will not be written of Casey what history wrote of Abrams: that he deserved a better war. But time isn’t on Casey’s side. U.S. politics won’t allow another year to see how the Iraqi forces develop.
So how, I asked Casey, could you do more with less? Casey urged me to visit Al Qaim, a city of 100,000 on the Syrian border, 200 miles northwest of Baghdad. “Look at what [Lieutenant] Colonel [Julian] Alford accomplished [there],” Casey told me. “He was one of my best battalion commanders. He showed how to turn a city around.”
For two years, the Americans had fought al-Qaeda inside Al Qaim, a transit point for foreign fighters who followed the Euphrates Valley to Ramadi and Fallujah. By the summer of 2005, members of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Sunni force, Al Qaeda in Iraq, had taken control of Al Qaim, while the locals stood on the sidelines. In the late fall, Alford’s battalion swept into the city from the west, battled the insurgents block by block, and drove most of them from the town.
Alford then broke his battalion down into smaller units to live alongside Iraqi soldiers, operating from austere combat outposts. He struck a bargain with the Abu Mahal, a local tribe that was feuding with al-Qaeda, and the tribespeople agreed to form a police force.
When I visited in October, the streets were teeming with shoppers. It was the only city in Anbar province where I could walk through a bustling market and listen to merchants complain about commerce, not security. The local bank, with $100,000 in dinars, had no armed guards. The Abu Mahal tribe was expanding its influence, providing recruits for the police in Rawah, the town to the east. The American civil-affairs colonel told me he had five times more projects in Al Qaim than in any other city in Anbar.
“My microfinance [small loan] projects took off in Qaim,” Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Roberto said. “We use Qaim as an example to other city councils. They even have soccer matches in Qaim.”
When I accompanied a foot patrol downtown, I noticed that none of the police wore masks to hide their identities. We walked together down a side street, where several policemen proudly pointed out their houses. On one street corner, the balcony of a house had been demolished and the walls gouged by bullets. I asked the police whether they had done that. “No,” they laughed. “Irahibeen [terrorists] were hiding there, so we brought marines.”
The Corps had provided a Marine squad for every police patrol. When police and other tribal members pointed out al-Qaeda hideouts, the marines attacked. The insurgents, stripped of anonymity, were driven from the city. The combination of aggressive Marine grunts with Iraqi forces who possessed local knowledge had worked. If there is a way forward in Iraq, Al Qaim and cities like it are the model. Farther to the north, in Tal Afar, Army Colonel H. R. McMaster successfully employed a similar technique.
One of the keys to success in both Al Qaim and Tal Afar was the effective partnership between the U.S. military and the local police. Both Alford and McMaster had actively cultivated this partnership by breaking down their forces into smaller units so that American leaders worked with Iraqi army platoons and police stations. And both commanders were convinced that lasting progress depended on Iraqi soldiers and police walking the streets, believing that they would win the ten-second firefights against insurgents.
Alford wrote an article in the Marine Corps Gazette, proposing to break down an infantry battalion into an “Iraq American Advisor Group.” The basic idea was to have combat-seasoned American military leaders present in sufficient numbers amid the local police and Iraqi army forces to ensure they would always prevail in clashes with insurgents. Officers and NCOs “would live, eat, and work with their Iraqi counterparts, donning Iraqi uniforms,” and advise them on all aspects of combat. Alford also recommends matching a Quick Reaction Force with each Iraq American Advisor Group. Alford’s idea, which I advocated to the members of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group I consulted with last fall, was one of the recommendations of the report issued in December.
In order to rapidly increase the number of advisers we’ve got deployed in the field, we’ll need to take platoons out of our infantry battalions and team them up with Iraqi soldiers and police. Such combined platoons are the first part of a workable solution—a way for us to increase stability while reducing troop levels—and they might become the beginnings of an exit strategy for the long term. The precedent for this is the Combined Action Platoon program in Vietnam, in which a Marine division deployed more than 100 squads (thirteen marines in each) to live in remote hamlets with militias made up of farmers. The average CAP patrolled nine square kilometers holding 5,000 villagers. Many CAPs had no fixed bases, and they kept moving around the hamlets at night so the Viet Cong could not find them.
The CAP program was successful, as far as it went. In February of 1968, several thousand North Vietnamese tried to sneak through the hamlets to assault the northern city of Da Nang. They never made it, as they were ambushed time and again by the tiny CAP units stretched across the paddy lands. Not one CAP village was ever retaken by the Viet Cong. The program’s advocates argued that it was a force multiplier, because each marine gained four Vietnamese riflemen who knew the area and spoke the language. (In Ramadi, a battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Jurney, used the same argument, telling me that “true partnering with the jundi [Iraqi soldiers] increases effectiveness fourfold.”)
Former Senator Chuck Robb, a member of the Iraq Study Group, visited Camp Fallujah while I was in Iraq. When we returned to the States, we compared notes and discussed the applicability of the CAPs program to Iraq. Robb had served as a Marine company commander in Vietnam and, like me, had been impressed with the performance of the CAPs. We did the rough math and concluded that the current number of American advisers—3,500—was completely inadequate to advise the more than 500 Iraqi companies and police units.
In the Study Group meetings, Robb proposed that the number of advisers be increased to 20,000. James Baker and the rest of the group agreed. (The report actually calls for 10,000 to 20,000 advisers.) Such a large increase in advisers would be offset by a drawdown of some of the 140,000 Americans currently serving in combat battalions and base-support units. It won’t be hard to reduce the present force dramatically. Our 40,000 front-line troops are supported by 100,000 support personnel living in Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs. FOBs devour manpower and they sprout staffs. Many on these staffs—the grunts call them “fobbits”— spend their entire tours inside the base gates.
The Iraq Study Group’s report is just one piece of evidence that a strong consensus finally seems to be emerging in support of a more muscular advisory effort. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, who commanded a company in Anbar, recently published an article in the Armed Forces Journal calling for an advisory program based on CAPs. In the Fallujah area, Colonel Nicholson has already doubled the number of advisers. And Lieutenant General James N. Mattis has long been an ardent proponent of embedding advisory units with each Iraqi battalion. As far back as the spring of 2004, when he was commanding the Marine division in Anbar province, Mattis intended to combine Marine platoons with Iraqi forces, but the eruption of the extended battle for Fallujah precluded that.
Iraqis need combat advisers out on the streets at the point of battle, but advisers alone won’t turn the tide. Iraq is being lost because American forces have a detailed program for protecting civil rights, but none for winning a war. Thus the second part of any workable solution must be the Iraqi government’s determination to disarm the militias and imprison insurgents and murderers. (The third part of any solution is technical: establishing an effective fingerprint-identification system.) General John Abizaid, who has emerged as Maliki’s staunchest supporter, assured Congress in mid-November that the Iraqi prime minister “will take on the militias,” and lead. Abizaid, who compares Iraq’s leaders to our Founding Fathers, was betting the war on a feckless politician with a poor track record. President Bush seemed to be doing the same when he met with Maliki in Jordan in late November. “One of his frustrations with me is that he believes we’ve been slow in giving him the tools necessary to protect the Iraqi people,” the president said. “And today we had a meeting that will accelerate [the transfer of military authority] … I appreciate his courage.”
But the generals and advisers I spoke with told me that Maliki has not supported his own military. Maliki shielded Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army from dismantlement, they said, and Maliki’s ministries failed to provide the necessary financial and logistical support to the Iraqi army and police. American advisers in Anbar province had to drive to Baghdad each month to wheedle Iraqi police and soldiers’ pay and food allowances from sclerotic ministries. Maliki had not cracked down on the Shia militias, and had done nothing to offer terms for reconciliation with the Sunnis.
Yet Maliki was insisting that the United States give him operational control of all Iraqi forces, a step that could lead to an army commanded by sectarian loyalists. To insure against that, we should insist on a U.S.-Iraqi joint review board empowered to relieve from duty any Iraqi military or police officers found guilty of malfeasance. If our advisers have no effect on indigenous leaders, there is no sense in advising. The Iraqi army cannot survive without American advisers, and we need a hedge against sectarian politics.
Abizaid’s deadline for Maliki to take on the militias runs out between February and April. What happens, I asked a senior American general in Iraq, if Maliki doesn’t exert leadership? “Then,” the general said, “we continue muddling through.”
In 1979, President Carter dispatched a U.S. Army general to Tehran to tell the Iranian army not to interfere as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept into power on a tide of popular support. Khomeini returned the favor by seizing the U.S. embassy and establishing an anti-American theocracy.
If Maliki continues to fail, President Bush will face a similar choice: insist on a democracy that has failed or signal that military rule behind a rubber-stamp assembly is preferable to collapse.
Muddling through is not a strategy.
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