The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


August 03, 2007

Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 8/3/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url:

In America, "neighborhood watch" means a sign with an all-seeing eye bolted to a pole, and perhaps a slightly higher chance that the residents of the area will call the police about suspicious activity. In Iraq, Neighborhood Watch means men with AK-47s and medium machine guns manning hasty checkpoints built from cinder blocks and rubbish.

There are three general divisions of Iraqi Security Forces:

The highest level is the Iraqi Army. The soldiers of an IA brigade are drawn from a broad region, and generally have the best training of Iraqi troops. Some IA divisions are considered to be quite competent -- for example, I have heard good things about the 1st and 5th IA, both from American observers, and from Iraqi troops who have served in those units.

Below the level of the IA is the Iraqi Police. Policemen are generally drawn from a city and the surrounding rural area. The quality of IPs varies widely by location: in al-Anbar province, most IPs are good men, trustworthy, and decently trained. In other areas, IPs have sometimes proven to be corrupt, or worse -- more loyal to their tribal connections than to the government. IPs also have to deal with the dangers inherent in serving the Iraqi government near their hometowns; if they are recognized, their families could be in danger. One can tell the security situation in an area has improved by looking at the faces of the IPs -- in Ramadi last year, most IPs (when they were present) wore face masks out of fear for their families. Now, they are usually uncovered.

The lowest level of ISF is the Provincial Security Forces. They come from an even smaller slice of countryside than do the IPs, and they attend a short academy that teaches basic skills before being put into the field. PSF often serve directly alongside IPs, manning vehicle checkpoints and patrolling villages. They lend a direct knowledge of small communities that the IPs for the broader area may lack. Many PSF will prove themselves on the beat with the IPs, and will go on to the IP academies to become policemen themselves.

Below the scope of government security operations is the Neighborhood Watch. These are volunteers from the local population, often managed by the local sheik and unpaid by the Iraqi government. The appearance of NW is often the portent of change in an historically violent area, because the formation of a local security force (as compared to outside intervention by Coalition Forces or ISF) represents a shift in the attitude of the local population. NW members are normally encouraged to join one branch or another of the ISF -- after vetting, many of them eventually do become soldiers or policemen.

American troops call them the "Good Bad Guys" or GBG, a title which reflects the checkered past of many of these fighters. One sheik, among the first to stand up a militia in the Falluja area, now commands a company of PSF troops. His men began as a militia, became recognized as NW by the local Marine command, and many eventually went to the academy to become PSF. The sheik himself was wounded fighting Americans in the battle for Falluja. He has been working with us now for close to a year. His community near the river is beautiful, acts of violence are extremely rare, and we have never had problems with him or any of his men.

This sort of turnaround is the future of al-Anbar province; convincing former insurgents that America is here to give them help, not to take their land, their oil, their culture, or their religion. Many have come to realize that we will leave once our job is done, and have turned their attention to helping root out the stubborn and the terrorists -- the ones who will never stop fighting.

Over the course of the last year, I have had the opportunity many times to see various Iraqi units in action. The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police have greatly increased in number. There were few of either evident in Ramadi last October, and they are everywhere now. I like to see IAs and IPs; I like to see that Iraqis fighting for their own country. However, the guys I really like to see are the PSF and Neighborhood Watch fighters.

I have witnessed the appearance of local fighters in an area several times -- an advent that is normally followed quickly by relative peace.

Framed_teflon_militia_1_4 Tribal fighters man a checkpoint near the Euphrates.

The first area in which I saw local fighters appear was along the Euphrates river near Falluja. The newly-formed Neighborhood Watch was controlled by the sheik I mentioned; the one that was wounded fighting American troops in the 2004 battle for Falluja. It is mainly because of him that so many units began calling the neighborhood watch the Good Bad Guys. There are many Iraqis like this sheik and his men, former insurgents who have grown to see Americans as allies, and al-Qaeda and foreign fighters as the real threat to their future. The region controlled by the sheik is marked by fighters manning checkpoints -- originally hasty affairs built from rusted engine parts and cinder brick, and upgraded to sand-filled plastic Jersey barriers as the local forces transitioned to PSF.

Framed_teflon_militia_2_2Children make their way to school.

Now the sheik commands a company of PSF fighters, as well as unincorporated Neighborhood Watch along his eastern border. He receives funds fom the Iraqi government to provide a stipend for his men and to help pay for equipment. As far as I am aware, there has been only one attack in his territory since the local citizens stood up -- a double IED strike one night that was followed by the PSF going house to house looking for the bomber. The problems and friction that many feared have not developed, even during the transition from the Marine unit that initially held the area to their successors.

The second time I saw a local militia form, it happened almost overnight. The region was an agricultural area northeast of Ramadi. It was a bad area, one that we frequently patrolled and often found IEDs in. Blast holes lined the roads, and in some places nearly blocked the narrow, elevated lanes. Two companies of Marines had spent months trying to gain control of the area, mainly on foot because the roads were continually seeded with IEDs. One day the ever-elusive enemy launched mortars at us while we paused at a Combat Outpost. None of the rounds hit our patrol or the COP, but at least one hit a school. We took four children and three adults to Camp Taqaddum, near Habbaniyah, for medical care.

One little girl died later at TQ, and more had been killed down in the village. In all, twelve children died.

Framed_teflon_militia_3_2The COP minutes before the transformational attack.

The next time we patrolled the route, later that week, there were militia fighters standing alongside Marines all along the road. We never found another IED in the area. I recently spoke with a Chief Warrant Officer who had been serving at the COP during the transformation. He did not know it had been our platoon in the area that day, but he directly credited our aid and the PSYOPS followup as the events that sparked the transformation. The Marines had spent months laying the groundwork -- interfacing with the villagers, offering aid, and sweeping for bad guys. The Iraqis weren't buying into it. In one day, that changed.

I was told that the Army PSYOPS unit attached to the Marines put on "the show of a lifetime". They went out onto the roads proselytizing via loudspeaker: "The insurgents say they are here to help you, but they only kill your children.The Americans are the only ones you can trust to help." They opened the mike up to the villagers, and the response was overwhelming. People came from their houses to tell the insurgents, "You killed my daughter. I will not sleep, I will not eat until I see you die!"

Iraqis came up to tell about the strange men that had appeared, threatening to kill families if they were not provided with shelter. They led Marines to caches and IEDs. Perhaps most importantly, they began to work with the Marines to secure their villages. Now the Marines are gone, save for a small contingent left on the main road to the south.

Framed_teflon_militia_4_2 A soldier gives first aid to an adult wounded in the mortar attack.

Standing up to the insurgents is not without risk. There have been several times that our patrol has passed dusty little cemeteries nestled among the trees, clustered with mourners burying fallen brothers. The non-uniformed forces in Iraq such as PSF or NW are in danger from multiple sides; from insurgents who wish to kill them, and from trigger-happy Americans who may shoot them thinking they are the enemy. Both have happened on occasion, but the tribesmen continue to serve.

Framed_teflon_militia_5_2Mourners gather at the funeral for seven fighters killed by insurgents.

Insurgents still hold out in Zaidon, sandwiched between Falluja and the Euphrates. The bombs there have gotten bigger and more numerous, as well as appearing in previously calm areas and including VBIEDs. Recently, a stretch of several bad days saw multiple trucks from each route-clearance patrol in the area strike IEDs. There is a possible light in the tunnel, though -- several new classes of PSF have just graduated, and some of those men are serving now in Zaidon. IED activity has already been markedly reduced. If the past is any indication, the Iraqi effort will spread wider and encompass the entire area, helping American troops to bring calm to one of the last major centers of violence in al-Anbar province.


I always enjoy reading your posts. Having been stationed at what was once refered to as Camp Junction City with the Big Red 1, I'm always looking for news of the situation in Al Anbar. It's encouraging the progress being made by the Iraqi people, and I wish the American media would report on more of it.

Thanks for keeping us informed of what is really going on over there!

Thanks for laying out these distinctions and explaining what it means to the Marines on a day-to-day & practical basis. You are the ones that make a difference. It's really cool to hear about these changes in opinion n Al-Anbar province. And, damn, it has to make things just a little less stressful. For everyone.

Thank you.

If only this sort of thing could happen all over Iraq!

The Iraqis vs the foreign jihadis is one part of the story over there.
I never worry that they could take over Iraq, because the Iraqi people wouldn't allow it, as shown by your post.

Maybe after they kick the jihadis out, the Iraqis will be better able to settle the whole Sunni, Shia, Kurd thing. Lets hope so.

Thank you for taking the time to write about this experience. Living here in the peacfull, war free midwest it is often difficult to see what the war over there is all about. I have always felt that we as a country need to be out there defending ourselves but this is the first I personally have read about a success cycle with Iraqies joining our side.
Thanks again for being out there doing your part to bring about freedom in this world of ours.

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