The First Test of the Surge

We are about to find out what happens in Iraq after the U.S. troops leave

Bush at Al Assad Air Base

On September 3, President Bush secretly flew into Al Assad Air Base in Anbar Province, 70 miles northwest of Baghdad, to meet with Prime Minister Maliki. According to press reports,  Bush deliberately chose Assad rather than Baghdad for the meeting  to make the point that if an accord can be reached among fighters here—in what was formerly the toughest area in Iraq—then surely the Iraqi government, secure in the American-fortified Green Zone, should be able to move toward reconciliation as well.

In a few days, Maliki is expected to return to Anbar from Baghdad with a pledge of long-overdue funds for the province and an agreement to include more Sunni tribesmen in the police and the army. (Until now, Maliki had objected that Sunni participation in the Anbar security forces might lead to the formation of Sunni militias.)  But what Anbar really needs is not just a local constabulary, but a well-supported Iraqi military force—a necessity that Maliki hasn’t shown that he’s willing to support.

The province, after all, has been a Wild West of sorts. In 2005, a relatively small number of al-Qaeda moved from city to city in Anbar, systematically intimidating one tribe after another. To the north and east of al Assad stretches a vast, arid region within Anbar Province loosely called Thar Thar—a mishmash of scrubby farms, roadside stands, and tire-repair shops servicing two highways leading toward Samarra to the east and Jordan to the northwest. It is 2,500 square kilometers of rocks, dust, and ravines, dotted by stubborn palm trees that refuse to die under the blistering heat. In the summer, temperatures soar to 120 degrees. Most of the population lives near the main highways.

Untouched by the U.S. military since the 2003 invasion, Thar Thar was al-Qaeda’s last refuge in Anbar. Only since April—after Marine generals James Mattis and Walt Gaskin persuaded General Petraeus and Admiral Fallon, in charge of Central Command, to send the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) to Anbar in support of Petraeus’s surge strategy—has the area gradually been brought under control.

Colonel Sam Mundy, the commander of the MEU, was tasked with clearing a 50-square kilometer area—larger than San Diego County. In one incident, as al-Qaeda fled before the oncoming marines, they strapped a man to a tractor tire, set it on fire, and rolled it down the road—a warning that when they returned a similar fate awaited anyone else they suspected of being an informer. Knowing that al-Qaeda had planted hundreds of improvised explosive devices and pressure mines, the marines spent the next five months walking every foot of the highways, removing 150 tons of explosives from houses, culverts, and buried caches. Six marines were lost to mines and snipers as they got the job done.

Flash forward to September 3, 2007. At the same time that President Bush was cajoling Maliki, Colonel Mundy was driving me around his battle space. We covered 160 kilometers in eight hours, stopping at three outposts. At each, I was greeted by marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, whom I had last seen during the 2004 battle for Fallujah. It was their third rotation back into Iraq.

Combat Outpost Golden in Anbar Province (Photo by Bing West)

We stopped first at Combat Outpost Golden, a bleak, treeless earth redoubt with a half dozen wooden huts and a line of tents. The brown dust, fine as powder, was so thick it flowed over the top of our boots. Every step raised clouds of it, golden in the blazing sun.

“Took us a few weeks to get showers in here,” Mundy said. “The marines looked like the cartoon character Pigpen. They’d sweat, and the dust would stick in layers they had to peel off to recognize one another. It’s grimy out here.”

Inside a hut, we met the commander of the Iraqi 2d Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Division, charged with replacing the marines when they leave in a week. A tall, imposing man, Brigadier General Ali Ghazi was a former member of the Republican Guard who had fought the Americans in Kuwait in 1991.

Ghazi explained that he could not possibly hold the area the marines had cleared. When Colonel Mundy left, he feared, his support would drop like a rock.

“In four years, the MOD [Ministry of Defense] has given my soldiers one uniform each. Last month, I got 300 boots for 600 soldiers. I’m supposed to give each soldier one boot? I drive eight hours to Baghdad to get my soldiers’ pay. Last week, I drove to Basra for gas,” he said. “We need water and food. Who gives it us? Colonel Mundy. My soldier gets killed here, it is ignored. Not like you Americans. The government doesn’t even know the 2d Brigade is out here in the desert.”

We drove on to a remote patrol base, where I talked with U.S. Sergeant Sam Severtsgaard from Northfield, Minnesota. His face had filled out since I had first seen him, in 2004 in Fallujah, where as a 19-year-old he had fought with courage that bordered on the reckless—on two occasions he rushed into close-quarters firefights with an armed grenade clutched in his hand, scaring the hell out of everyone around him. He ended up getting shot in the side and the leg, and was being rehabilitated in the States in 2005 when 3/1 was sent back to Iraq. He talked his way out of the hospital and rejoined his company. Now he was back for his third, and final, seven-month tour as a squad leader.

Another view of Combat Outpost Golden (Photo by Bing West)

“Three rotations to Iraq in four years is enough,” he said. “I just got married, and I’m getting out to be a firefighter. The Iraqi soldiers can handle this. There’s no real combat anymore. We’re putting this outpost in good hands. But in three deployments, I’ve seen no improvement for the people. They don’t even have water. It’s dry, hot. They have nothing.”

From there, we drove 28 kilometers to the next outpost, called Chicago. Calling it hell might be more appropriate. The temperature hovered at 115 degrees, and there were three air-conditioned rooms, 40 marines, and 20 Iraqi soldiers. A hunt was on to find wood to construct a few huts before the marines left the Iraqis on their own.

I met with seven marines who had fought with 3/1 in Fallujah in 2004 and were now on their third tour. I remembered that one, Sergeant Derek Fetterolf, had held the record for collapsing the most enemy-occupied houses—more than 50—with a rocket launcher called a  SMAW. Fetterolf and most of the others said they believed that the Iraqi soldiers, with whom they had worked for the past month, could stand on their own.

“I’ve seen outstanding progress in the jundi [Iraqi soldier] in four years,” Fetterolf said. “Like, they show up 10 minutes early when they stand post with us, and they have all their shit on.”

None of the marines believed that the Iraqis could hold the entire expanse that they now occupied. Instead, the Iraqis would have to consolidate along the main highways, which would accommodate their tendency toward defense and checkpoints. That, the marines believed, would be acceptable if the Iraqi soldiers could stay on good terms with the villagers, which had been the case for the past month. But it would be no easy task; at least 60 kilometers of main highway would have to be kept open by only 600 Iraqi soldiers.

President Bush came to al Assad to make a point—that there is military progress on the ground in Iraq, but political leadership is lagging. The president may not have known it, but the first test case of what will happen after the surge is about to occur right outside Assad, in Thar Thar. Colonel Mundy and his marines, many bone-tired after three deployments, are leaving. And no American unit will replace them.

“The IA [Iraqi army] works while we’re here with them,” Sergeant Joseph Daniels said, while the others nodded. “We give them their water and chow. We leave, and they have no support.”

Next week, the 2d Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Division will be on its own in Apache country. A brigade cannot perform without food, water, arms, pay, and the belief that it is part of a system that will take care of it. So far, the ministries in Baghdad have failed to provide adequate support, much less show that they care.

Chicago and Golden are bleak and distant outposts in a long-hostile land. The Iraqi supply sergeants will no longer be able to run next door and ask their friendly Marine gunnery sergeant for a dollop of water, fuel, or Poupon mustard. There will be no faking it. Here, at Assad, is where we will first discover whether a government that has been weak and selfish will finally step up and take care of its own soldiers.