“I don’t get intelligence off a satellite. Iraqis tell me who the enemy is. That is very dangerous for Iraqis. You think about how much courage that takes when you’ve got to live with these murderous bastards.”–Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division
Single sound bites from American generals and friendly Iraqi leaders are rarely enough to describe the overall situation in the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, and points north. Fighting in the region has dropped-off dramatically since the 1st Marine Division’s defenses were realigned earlier this month. But in the forward-most positions, an unfamiliar “click,” a barking dog, or the sudden distant booming of artillery and mortars often find restless Marines fingering the safety switches on their rifles.
Throughout the month of May, much of the combat focus has shifted from Fallujah to cities like Najaf, Kufa, and Karbala. There, soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division have been battling outlaw-cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia forces. And on May 14, a British (Scots) Highland regiment reportedly launched a wildly successful bayonet charge against a numerically superior force of al Sadr loyalists near Amara.
But the big news out of Fallujah, last week, was a press conference held by Muhammed Ibrahim al-Juraissey, the city’s mayor; Gen. Mohammed Latif, commander of the Fallujah Brigade; and Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division. Though scant media attention has been paid to the three men’s comments–delivered on Thursday, May 20–their words speak volumes about the blossoming relationship between Iraqis and Americans, and the fact that insurgents operating in the city are losing friends fast.
The conference tackled a number of caustic issues, including the treatment of prisoners under U.S. Marine Corps authority, a controversial attack on a so-called wedding party near the Syrian border, the murders of four American civilian contractors in March, and the ongoing efforts to gather intelligence, shut down the bad guys, and rebuild Fallujah.
No sound bites here–a transcript of the press conference follows:
Gen. Mohammed Latif, commander of the Fallujah Brigade: Everybody knows about the problems that happened in Fallujah. I don’t want to go into details but you know there were no bad feelings and no hatred between anyone. It’s just what happened is that somebody had started it and therefore hopefully everything is under control.
Religious leaders and citizens of Fallujah have all denounced what happened in Fallujah. And there was a religious fatwah that was distributed in most of the mosques. The Fallujahan citizens, they respect all the guests, if their foreigners or locals or engineers or any kind of international dealer.
Of course what’s normal is peace. What’s not normal is the fighting and the lack of peace. The speed of bringing back the peace shows the good intention of everybody that wants peace back. Everybody knows the history of Fallujah and that they love peace.
When the Coalition Force came to Iraq, they didn’t come to fight at all. They came to get rid of the worst dictatorship on earth. It’s a bad example for the history and the present. So we asked the Coalition Forces to help us get construction back and get things back on the trail.
Happiness you can see on the face of Fallujahans and their smiles, I see the same thing on the faces of the Marines, our guests. Most importantly is that we work together that is our main goal. And this is going to be an example for all Iraq. And I hope peace will come and everyone is living happily in this country.
Fallujah Mayor Muhammed Ibrahim al-Juraissey: After the incidents in Fallujah and after all the problems that happened there was a lot of leadership, a lot of good people that came to Fallujah trying to solve this problem. We had many cease-fires and finally you had the last cease-fire where the peace started.
That was really established on May 10 when the American convoy was able to go all then way into the city and stop by the office of the Mayor and after that they came out. They had a meeting at my office with all the important people of Fallujah and the council. After that, it left the city without having any incidents or any threat against it. And this will show that we finally have peace in the city that God has blessed us with.
And I agree with General Latif now to say that this city is the calmest city and the most stable city in Iraq. I would hope that the steps of peace will be accompanied by the steps of building and construction. Now we are working with the Coalition Forces and the engineers to fix the homes work on construction of the city. Since last week, we started compensations to all the people who were hurt or to the one that they had properties destroyed in the fighting.
Even though this was a hard thing to do to get everything rolling, but with the efforts of everybody and the help of everybody, now this is going very smooth everybody is getting paid on time. I had two meetings and I was able to find out that there are projects that are ready to be done in the city that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And we hope we start soon with these projects so the citizens can see the projects being done in the city.
About the accident that happened for the four contractors, the American contractors in the city, the religious leaders have spoken about this. The religious leaders came up with a fatwah… and this fatwah denounced the mutilation of the bodies of anyone. Just like with any other religion, the Muslim religion denounced this.
When it’s time to start with the projects, Fallujah’s going to be open for anybody to go there. Mostly Iraqi contractors will be doing those and the expertise will be by American engineers they’re welcome to do it. The American engineers will be supervising the work of the Iraqis.
Gen. Latif: First, it helps us bring security into the city. Until now, there wasn’t one incident that destroyed any security. Very soon, the ICDC [Iraq Civil Defense Corps] and the police will be taking care of the security of the city. Actually today or tomorrow they can start the [ongoing] training of the Fallujah Brigade. And the police can take care of the security in the city because Fallujah has some specialties in it.
The first day I entered Fallujah, the most or maybe 50 percent of the stores, they were half open and full of merchandise. And when the peace came and the people went back to their stores, they went back to find out that nobody had touched their merchandise. That shows the high quality of the Fallujahans. That’s why I can tell they love peace. They have sworn they will have peace and they believe it.
I go every day to Baghdad and I always wish I could go back and sleep in Fallujah because I don’t hear any shootings. It’s very safe in Fallujah. Today, I saw six wedding convoys in the city. Everything is normal finally in Fallujah, and the all the families have come back to their homes. The compensation has been paid to all the people who were killed in demonstrations. Also there’s going to be some compensation for all the stores and cars and houses and everything that got destroyed in the city.
You see some weapons behind you. These are samples of weapons we have collected. And Fallujah is going forward now toward construction.
Gen. Latif (through interpreter): Quickly, what he asked is there are thousands of people that were killed and wounded in Fallujah. Did we pay everybody? What the general said is we already paid some of them we’re going to be paying every day and some of the people we’re paying all the amount that they need. Also people who were detained and who were released, they are also getting compensation, which is a lot of them. And there’s a lot of other that we’re going to release.
It’s the people who came and gave up these weapons because they don’t think that they need them anymore.
By law, people can have AK’s or guns, but they don’t have the right to have launchers like this. And I don’t think nobody will need it again.
Gen. Latif (through interpreter): He didn’t see any foreign fighters in Fallujah anymore.
Gen. Latif: We are not producing this. We don’t know exactly. It depends on the feeling of the people and they are giving it to us. They more they are going to agree or feel there is peace, the more they are going to come up with their weapons. There’s no room in the houses for this kind of weapon.
About the weapons, this is what you see. There is going to be no problem by having more and more weapons come out. The general said this is a time of peace and generals don’t need to be speaking anymore.
Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division: Some of them are already trained and that’s why we’ve got to see what we’ve got trained. You’ve got to understand that officers are…okay what’s your name?
Whether or not this model can serve for the rest of Iraq, whether or not it’s viable…
These were people who were literally hiding behind women and children.
I’ve got my plan and by God, come hell or high water, I’m just going to execute that plan no matter what. Our end state was all along, if you ask the Marines, was no better friend, no worse enemy. We’re going to find a way to turn Iraq back over to the decent people of Iraq. They’ve gone through three useless wars…
I’m telling you to go look at them. They’re able to make that shift in mid-stride. That says something about their humanity and their discipline.
When we went in, I said we were going in. When we were there and we were stopped, I said we were stopped with no offensive ops. When I decided to pull back and turn over part of the burden, I turned over some of the southern area. I think you’re all aware we pulled out of part of the northern cordon. So we pulled back. As they gained control of the city, the Fallujah Brigade did, as you know I drove into the city, but we pulled back.
Unnamed reporter: Would this be a bad time for the troops to go back in? The Seabees, for example, to do reconstruction projects or do you think this may need a little…
Gen. Mattis: I think the Fallujah Brigade needs to demonstrate it’s got control. We already have Iraqi contractors going and doing it and the thing is, every time we have Seabees doing something, we’re not taking any of this money that we have for Iraq… that money goes to Iraqi contractors. They employ Iraqis. There’s no need to have U.S. sailors, U.S. Marines, U.S. soldiers doing something the Iraqis could do. That’s the way we’re going to get the country back up. Not by going in and doing while they sit unemployed, sitting there angry like your or I would be if we had foreign troops in our homes. So, we’re trying to balance this thing with them coming in to do it. I have no need to put U.S. troops in to do something their engineers are able to do.
Unnamed reporter: So would you be happy to keep, as long as Fallujah stays peaceful and there’s no indication of any disturbance, would you be happy to keep all Americans out of the city?
Gen Mattis: I wouldn’t be happy to do that. The only way you build trust out here is for us to work together. We’ve seen it in Husaybah, where we had a dickens of a fight and literally a couple days later, things had changed… (tape garbled) RPGs. We’re finding out people with IED making material. They way you break down distrust is by getting together and even if someone doesn’t like the big issues, they don’t like American foreign policy, we don’t like certain things, when you work together, you sweat together, you try to focus on things where we have common cause, like sometimes the Iraqi police department, they don’t have to like us.
Back in the 1940s and 50s they had British officers and NCOs in command of Jordanian and the Jordan Legion. The Jordan Legion did not like the United Kingdom and Great Britain. They didn’t like them. They were a very good counter-terrorist force because they were going to take care of their Hassamite king. And the British were (tape garbled). We don’t have to have…we don’t have to agree on every issue, every international diplomatic issue for us to have some kind of chance for peace in the streets of Fallujah or Husaybah or Ramadi. We have to understand we have a common cause here to restore peace, stop the violence, rebuild Iraq, the Americans get out of the way and move on. We don’t do that by having two separate armed camps and never mixing the two.
Unnamed reporter: You said you have to see how the Fallujah Brigade if they can indeed deliver. They have not proven themselves yet.
Gen. Mattis: Oh, well they’re starting. You look against the wall over there. That’s a very healthy start.
Unnamed reporter: That’s just a start.
Gen. Mattis: Well, yes, that’s a start. The trend is obviously in the right direction.
Gen. Mattis: Like I said earlier, they’re still trying to get a hold of their people. You know, like organizing. So many things we take for granted, the organization (tape garbled) You don’t know your full allegiance. Military units aren’t like that. There’s an unlimited liability clause. When they say go attack these guys, based on trust of each other… they’ve got to develop trust in each other.
Unnamed reporter: There was some confusion as to what he was able to do with… (unintelligible).
Gen. Mattis: He’s just going to have to take it in stride and toughen up a little bit. Welcome to the real world. It’s not all black and white. We’re going to do this in a way where first, cause no harm, do no harm. First thing you do is go out and knock, we can say it’s a cordon and knock when an American with a rifle steps to your door and you’re an Iraqi, we’ve got to be careful. We got to make sure we’re there for a reason. So when we try to check this stuff out, we’ll stop it in a heartbeat if we feel we’ve got bad intel. I will stop ten hits to avoid getting some one guy we couldn’t get if we endangers or threaten one family that we should not.
These guys are not the brightest enemy in the world, the one’s we’re up against. It’s not like in Vietnam where you’ve got people sitting around at night and the Viet Cong are fighting us, but the (tape garbled). We’re in charge and we’re going to do this and that. All these people do is kill members of the household, they destroy power lines, destroy bridges, they set off IEDs that kill Iraqis. They don’t have a political end state. So this is not something to be dignified as insurgents or something like that. There is nothing nationalistic possible about these people. The do not have a political end state, these people, which is also why they’re weak. I’ll tell you right now, I don’t get intelligence off a satellite. Iraqis tell me who the enemy is. That is very dangerous for Iraqis. You think about how much courage that takes when you’ve got to live with these murderous bastards.
Gen. Mattis: For example, today broke ground on a new hospital wing. We got started on that. Gen. Latif just talked to us about a youth center and computers so they can get on the Internet, playground equipment for little kids. So we’re going to continue those kinds of projects, things we would have been doing six months ago had there not been someone fighting here.
Unnamed reporter: How many Marines, right now, around the city are making their presence known?
Gen. Mattis: I don’t want to get into numbers. 1st Marines–Regimental Combat Team 1–have got people in Saqlawiyah, Tharthar, Kharma, Abu Ghraib… they’re out there working with the people. Hopefully we’ll hand out more soccer balls than we will throw grenades.
Gen. Mattis: I did not. It seldom came up in our coordination meetings. The fact that some undisciplined people disappointed us horribly, all of it, is not something that impacted us here. As a matter of fact is what I have done is, I have four detention facilities inside my division–out near the Syrian border, one aside of it, one in Ramadi, one here–at any time a tribal, civic or religious leader wishes to see them, they do not ask them to dance. They can come out. They will see us. We’ll take them straight in so they can see there is no getting ready (tape garbled) They can admire our detention facilities. They have medical attention. When someone’s at our mercy, that’s what defines us out here.
Unnamed reporter: Tell us a little more what happened yesterday out near the Syrian border. I understand Marines that were involved, but I believe they were in your task force or were working together with your task force.
Gen. Mattis: What is the nature of your question?
Unnamed Reporter: What happened yesterday at 3 a.m. in Al Qaim? Was there a wedding on? A wedding celebration?
Gen. Mattis: You joined us a little late, as I said to the young lady here, I said how many people how many people go to the desert 10 miles from the Syrian border and hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization? Over two-dozen military-aged males… let’s not be naïve. Let’s leave it at that.
Gen. Mattis: I can’t…I’ve seen the pictures, but I can’t…bad things happened. Generally…in Fallujah, I never saw a Marine hide behind a woman or a child or hold them in their house and fire out of the building. I don’t have to apologize for the conduct of my Marines. I think the enemy, that was here, owes the entire world an apology (tape garbled) validation against us saying somehow they suddenly shot at a wedding part in the middle of the desert (tape garbled).
Gen Mattis: No, I was busy meeting with two of my commanders. I was busy. But no, General Latif would never ask me to do that. No the mayor would never do that. The mayor…this is a civilian matter. We’re trying to restore civilian authority, not impose the American solution. If they can make it work, it’s going to be an Iraqi solution. All the doubters, who three weeks ago said it couldn’t possibly work, are now grudgingly saying, well, something worked.
[End of Press Conference]
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.