Ineffective Iraqi Force in Fallouja Disbanded

The move is a setback to Marines, who hoped the brigade would quell the insurgency in the city.

By Alissa J. Rubin

Los Angeles Times

September 11, 2004

RAMADI, Iraq — The Iraqi military force formed by the Marines in a last-ditch effort to pacify the restive city of Fallouja has been disbanded in the face of continuing violence, assaults on government security forces and evidence that some members have been working openly with insurgents.

The dissolution of the Fallouja Brigade, created during the spring to avoid an all-out assault on the insurgent hotbed, marked a significant setback for the U.S. military. The Americans had hoped that the brigade, composed of former members of the Iraqi army and Saddam Hussein's special security forces, would work alongside the new Iraqi government and help restore order.

"The Fallouja Brigade is done, over," said Marine Col. Jerry L. Durrant, who oversees the 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit's involvement with Iraqi security forces. "The whole Fallouja Brigade thing was a fiasco. Initially it worked out OK, but it wasn't a good idea for very long."

Durrant did not say what the Marines might do next, but U.S. warplanes Friday bombed Fallouja for the fourth consecutive day and the air campaign was expected to continue and possibly intensify. Friday's air attack targeted earth-moving equipment being used by insurgents to build fighting positions, a Marine spokesman said.

With the demise of the Fallouja Brigade — agreed to by the interim Iraqi government and the Marines — the Marines are left with no attractive options for rooting out Fallouja's entrenched insurgency. The rebel movement has spread to surrounding villages and left the interim Iraqi government without control of one of the nation's largest cities west of Baghdad. Marines remain based as close as two miles from Fallouja, but the insurgents — local and foreign fighters backed by firebrand Sunni Muslim clerics — have had several months to dig in and make it more difficult for American troops or Iraqi government forces to launch a ground attack.

The development comes as U.S. forces try to reestablish Iraqi government control in several insurgent bastions, including Samarra, to the north of Baghdad, just months before scheduled national elections.

Gen. Abdullah Hamid Wael, the brigade's latest leader, announced the dissolution Thursday night on instructions from the Defense Ministry.

Speaking at an Iraqi military base west of Fallouja, Wael read from a ministry statement that said "any member of the brigade can, as an individual, join the Iraqi national guard or the Iraqi police."

Discontent rippled through the group, many of whose members had hoped that it would remain intact and eventually become a unit of the new army. Judging by members' comments, it seemed likely that some would openly rejoin the insurgency, in which many had been involved before joining the brigade. In doing so, they would be able to fight with weapons provided to them by the Marines, who also paid them monthly salaries.

That will make it all the more difficult for U.S. troops and Iraqi government forces to retake Fallouja — currently a "no go" area for U.S. forces.

"We don't know where to go now after this dismissal by the American troops and the Iraqi interim government," said Brig. Gen. Tayseer Latief of the brigade. "They leave us no other option but to join the resistance."

Defense Ministry officials declined to comment Friday.

When the brigade was established, Marine commanders acknowledged that many members either were insurgent fighters or had connections to them. The insurgents waged intense battles against Marines for weeks in April.

The goal in forming the force was to avoid a bloodbath by allowing the Marines to withdraw from the city but leaving a proxy force to tamp down insurgent activity and arrest those responsible for the killings of four U.S. civilian security contractors March 31.

Initially, Marine commanders said the brigade would root out anti-American forces and target foreign fighters. The Marines hoped that the brigade members, with their military training and pride in having responsibility for their town, would stand up against those fighting the U.S. military and Iraqi interim government forces.

Empowering a force made up of Iraqis would move "Iraqi stakeholders … to try to contribute to solving some of the challenges and problems," Marine Col. John Coleman said in a July interview.

Coleman acknowledged that the brigade was "a nascent military capability at best," but one that enabled the Marines to get out of the city where their presence had become a rallying call for the insurgency.

In the month after the brigade's formation, "the enemy activity in this zone dropped to almost zero," he said. But it then began to climb back to the level it had been before the killing of the U.S. civilian contractors, whose remains were mutilated.

In the end, most brigade members' prior allegiance to the insurgency proved impossible to sever.

The brigade made no effort to restrict insurgent activities, members and the Marines said. Fallouja became even safer for insurgents, who could take refuge, plot attacks and run manufacturing centers for car bombs and other explosives.

Made up of 1,600 former members of the Iraqi army and Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, the brigade was formally created April 30.

Four months later, as the brigade is dissolved, its members are better armed, better equipped and better off. Monthly wages ranged from $260 for low-level soldiers to $700 for generals, one of the brigade's staff officers said. The Marines also gave brigade members new semiautomatic rifles and vehicles and furnished a base for them.

For much of the time, the brigade was technically under Marine command and its staff officers were in touch almost daily with Marine officers at Camp Fallouja on the outskirts of town.

"We're trying to go in and recover the stuff we gave them, but I'm not sure it's worth it," Durrant said. "They've already stolen the air conditioners."

He added that when two Marine helicopters inadvertently flew over the Fallouja Brigade base several weeks ago, the aircraft were riddled with bullets and "the pilot was shot in the face."

On a recent trip to Fallouja, it appeared that brigade members were mixing easily with insurgents.

At several checkpoints, one or two Iraqi police officers lounged under small palapa huts with a brigade soldier as a couple of masked men with AK-47s leaned into each car looking for Westerners.

Last week, several Fallouja Brigade members in uniform shot at Marines near the city limits and the Marines returned fire, Durrant said.

From the brigade's inception, many members never fully disentangled themselves from the insurgent movement. Some expressed pride at the role they had played in fighting the Marines and boasted of their prowess in firing weapons. Although the Marines provided them with uniforms, most brigade members eschewed them in favor of the brown or olive green uniforms worn by the Iraqi armed forces under Hussein.

Although the brigade was never expected to remain in place indefinitely, there had been talk of having members join either the Iraqi army or the national guard — either as a unit or as individuals. Brigade members had said they wished to join the army as a unit, but interim Iraqi officials believed that to create a professional army, soldiers had to be loyal first to the country, not to a unit, city or province.

As it turns out, few brigade members appear likely to be welcomed into the army — it was not mentioned as an option in the announcement, although Marine officials said they believed Falloujans were free to sign up.

It also seems unlikely that Falloujans would choose to join the national guard. Many Iraqis in the Fallouja area view the guardsmen as U.S. stooges. Fallouja fighters killed a local national guard commander a few weeks ago and kidnapped another, leading many guardsmen to abandon their positions.

Several members said they were angered by the dissolution.

"This was a great violation to the members of the brigade by the American forces and the Iraqi interim government," said Maj. Ahmed Abed Abaas. "Dissolving the Fallouja Brigade, they broke the truce agreed upon last April when the Americans besieged Fallouja."