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September 08, 2007
Operation Alljah: The Swarm

Posted by Bill

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Commenced on May 29 and ending last week, Operation Alljah was the latest and most successful bid to achieve security in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, marrying projection of force with aggressive civil affairs outreach. During the operation, the city was subdivided into 10 neighborhoods in efforts dubbed "the swarm," a coordinated series of counterinsurgency components: US troops and Iraqi Security Forces rolled into a neighborhood and established security, cordoned it off with concrete barrier checkpoints, created a local police precinct, recruited a neighborhood watch, provided employment for day laborers, conducted an information campaign to inform the citizenry of the operation, arbitrated any claims against Iraqi or US forces, distributed food and began meetings with neighborhood leaders to address infrastructure concerns.

From left to right: Chief Warrant Officer Steve Townsley, Staff Sgt. Mauricio Piedrahita, and Sgt. Giovanni Roman of the 5/10 CAG at Camp Baharia.(View larger image)

"The thing that's going to stop the insurgency is the will of the people. Once the people are fed up with it, tired of it, the insurgency is going to stop," said Civil Affairs Chief Warrant Officer Steve Townsley. "Now we're totally focused on essential services. Trying to help out ... as much as possible. The whole persona of the 2/6 [Marines], the way they're running operations, is to provide for the citizens. The IPs [Iraqi Police] are like that too, they're out there engaging the people. They [used to get] attacked so much that they were a military force, doing military-type operations. When they showed up, they showed up hard. Now it's more 'Hey what's going on? How are you doing? What can we do for you?' It's yielded huge gains."

From left to right: 5/10 CAG Marines Sgt. Maxuel Cabasag, Cpl. Paul Webster, Cpl. Daniel Orozco, Sgt. Craig Provens, and Lance Cpl. Jose Gomez. (View larger image)

Over the past few days, I shadowed Townsley's 5/10 Civil Affairs Group (CAG) out of Camp Baharia during the 10th and final stage of the operation.

At about 6 AM, the 5/10 CAG conducted a briefing for the day's event: the establishment of the local police precinct in the Mualimeen District in the heart of downtown Fallujah.

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Heading into downtown on Fran -- the main thoroughfare that bisects the city -- was a drastically different experience than it was during my last visit in January. More folks were out and about, new solar-powered streetlights lined the way, the barriers along the road were freshly painted, and the Marines were alert but loose, lacking the palpable tension that used to accompany a trip down this historically explosive stretch of highway.

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The CAG Marines arrived at the newly established precinct, a building that formerly housed a preparatory school in the Fallujah Government Center, the walled government compound in the center of the city.

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By 8 AM, recruits for the district's neighborhood watch -- called "Fallujah Protectors" -- were lined up for evaluation and processing.

"At each precinct we establish, we get approximately 200 neighborhood watch. Essentially volunteers in the area, but they do get paid," said Capt. Mark Cameron, assistant operations officer with Marine Task Force 2/6.

"We give them three specific tasks. [First,] wear your uniform in the line of duty, which is big, a show of presence, a little show of community within each neighborhood. [The] second task is to obey the orders of the IP. They essentially work for the IP. They're not IP-trained, in the sense that they haven't gone to the [police] academy in Jordan, but they're more or less a junior team for the IP, and many aspire to eventually become police. And the third task they're responsible for is to treat the citizens of Fallujah with dignity and respect, and be able to represent them how they would want to be represented, as a big brother, a role model within the city."

LCPL Kevin Mummey of the Fallujah Police Transiion Team (PTT) lines up recruits for the neighborhood watch.(View larger image)

"They're paid $150 a month for a two-month period and after those two months they're assessed on their ability to accomplish those three tasks, by the IP in conjunction with a Marine liaison," continued Cameron. "They do get checked for medical problems. Usually what we'll see is injuries from past kinetic events, like from the Iraq-Iran war in some of the older guys, but as long as they can pull their body weight and do a push-up we'll let them go through if they've got the heart and are willing to do it."

In addition to providing local security and needed employment, a benefit of the neighborhood watch is the sublimation of the recruiting pool for local insurgency. Besides hard-core jihadists, a large portion of insurgent activity was a result of Fallujans trying to make money in a city with little-to-no prospects for employment: Last January, men would get paid as little as $20 to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against Coalition forces.

When asked about how security had changed so drastically, what they think of Americans and IPs, and why so many Fallujans had formerly backed the insurgency, one volunteer had this to say: "I want to be neighborhood watch to protect the city and 150 dinars is good pay, and I want to [become an] IP. And when I become an IP, I'll have 750 dinar. Like you said, four, five, seven months ago, the city was not good. But the reason the city is now good is because of us, we protect the city, because we're from this city; we know who's the good guy, we know who's the bad guy. So, the bad guy? To jail or get out [of] my city. The good guy? You're welcome, you can stay here."

All of the neighborhood watch volunteers I spoke with cited this desire for increased security and good pay.

A Fallujah Protector tries on his new uniform. (View larger image)

Asked why it took so long for Fallujans to switch sides or rise up against the insurgency, another volunteer said, "Before, we had the terrorists, they controlled the city, so they had the power to do what they wanted to do. But you can say we woke up right now, we were asleep. We woke up to move the bad guy, to push him out, to kill him or to put him in jail. We were waiting for help from the government."

Several volunteers expressed that the key to building security momentum was the empowerment of the Iraqi Police with cover from Marine firepower. Their opinion of US troops has changed:

"At first, Americans were not doing a good job, because if they were attacked, they would kill [civilians] in the surrounding area, but now they are good to the people and trying to help. They are going out sooner or later, and it is a good gesture of them to try to help us before they leave."

On al Qaeda, one volunteer said: "It was very bad. They were targeting everyone: American, policeman, civilian. There was no difference between a target and another target. They were killing and kidnapping and planting bombs on the side of the roads, and targeting everyone, [not just] American forces. They were bombing the mosques and targeting the imams who spoke out against al Qaeda."

"Now we start to know what is right and what is wrong," said another recruit. "The picture is so clear now. When things started and the [initial] invasion came to Fallujah, we said, 'It's OK for civilians to [take up arms] and fight the invasion and throw [the Americans] out from Fallujah.' We said, 'OK, they are the enemy and that's our friend.' But things were confused, and the enemy has become the friend and the friend became the enemy."

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Another element of Operation Alljah is the engagement of the "Muktars," local community representatives who arbitrate and advocate for community interests.

"When we got here, there was a sheik's council. But in [the actual city of)] Fallujah, you can't have a sheik's council, because they have [Muktars, who are] like city sheiks. Fallujah is not divided by tribes, like in Ramadi. So when we were doing the sheik's council, we were going nowhere, because the sheiks didn't know the people ... until we started noticing the Muktars. They were like, 'What about us? How come nobody's talking to us?'" explained 5/10 CAG Staff Sergeant Mauricio Piedrahita.

"So we started talking to them. They are like block captains who go back to the Saddam days. He's in charge of a neighborhood. He knows everyone inside that neighborhood. They're official positions appointed by the government. We do contracting for projects through them, because they know who to employ, because they know 'Hey, I'm not gonna employ this guy because he's from another district, he needs to be employed by his own (neighborhood).' So this way we ensure that everyone is getting a fair amount of contracts and the projects and jobs are being distributed around the district."

Engaging Muktars and backing their authority has succeeded where past civil affairs strategies have failed. Projects are now more in line with the needs of the community, and the decentralization of contracting has mitigated serious problems with corruption. During these meetings, the Muktars outline the most pressing infrastructure needs for the district: power (generators), fuel, water and sewage.

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The following day, the CAG headed out for the next phase of the operation: interaction with and aid to the civilians in the district.

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The marines picked up food bags, soccer balls and jerseys from a storage depot, loaded them into trucks and convoyed to meet the Iraq police officers who would distribute the packages to the neighborhood. Americans let the Iraqis take the lead to put a local face on the effort and empower the IPs.

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The most important items are food bags containing basics like flour, chai and seasoning. Fallujans have traditionally received food rations from the central government, but the flow has dwindled since the initial invasion. Whereas before they received rations with 15 elements, they now sometimes receive as few as 3.

"It's not that they're starving. But prior to the war, they had government pricing for food and fuel. Like a liter of fuel was 250 Iraqi dinars. There's a lot of black market and private enterprise now, and it's like 1250 per liter for fuel. So (they complain) 'This is black market!' And it's not illegal, but they have a socialist kind of view, and a limited knowledge of other types of governance. Even the food was 50 Iraqi dinar for a bag of flour, and every citizen had their just right ration of flour, sugar, chai, etc.," said CWO Townsley.

Needless to say, the food bags were popular.

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Some marines complain about the "boring" nature of the civil affairs focus, while others embrace it.

"It's a change," said SSG Piedrahita. "But like they say, we're marines, we adapt to anything. We're always going to do the job as best we can. Like these guys, the 2/6, are all grunts, all infantrymen. They get trained to kill, in combat, and then we get this and we adapt to it and do the best we can. In a way, it's good. We're not getting Marines killed out here."

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I thought the food bags were popular, until the IPs started tossing out soccer balls ...

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... which instigated ecstatic riots of little people, or the "meester, meesters", as Marines call them.

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Jerseys were also a big hit. As in most countries of the world, soccer is immensely popular. Iraq's victory in the championship game of the Asia Cup was broadcast over the city's PA system, and the place went wild. Celebratory small arms fire (SAF) reminded Americans of the old days, when the rattle of AK-47s were daily background noise.

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The Marine security element kept constant watch while other marines and the IPs moved casually through the streets. The atmosphere was so relaxed that it was easy to forget potential threats. As I cleaned my dusty camera lens, one Marine reminded me to "never stay still" in order to avoid accurate sniper fire. But the day was peaceful. The children were almost universally friendly, and the looks from adults varied from friendly to wary to projected apathy to a sort of interested surprise. Americans say that there is variation by neighborhood in such "atmospherics" (Mualimeen is not the friendliest section of the city, though not the unfriendliest), but that the overall positive change in local opinion has been significant.

"[The Marines and IP] are not kicking down doors, they knock on the door, they give them time for the women and children to go into a room, they'll talk to the man of the house, so it's a different attitude," said SSG Piedrahita. "(The civilians) know they can approach us now. Before they couldn't run towards a convoy saying 'hey there's an IED' because they knew they might get shot. Now, they see they can approach us, they can talk to us, because 85% of our operations are out on the street, we're actually walking the street, talking to the people so that they can see us. They know we're not some kind of devil."

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The food distribution ended in the late morning hours and the CAG team returned to base as other marines continued a second day of recruitment for the neighborhood watch. The security impact of Alljah, among other factors, has reaped objective benefits. Attacks within the city during August numbered a little more than 70, down from a historic peak of over 750 in March of 2007.

Townsley summed up Alljah with a popular counterinsurgency saying: "Stay soft, 'till you have to go hard."


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Posted by Bill at September 8, 2007 02:19 PM | TrackBack (0)

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Incredible. You go Marines. For some it may not look like much but a lot was sacrificed to get to that point, this picture journal. Brings joy to my heart. Praise the Lord.

Posted by: Patrick B at September 8, 2007 05:23 PM

In military terms, think of it as preventative preparation of the ground to block any future exploitation of the populace to provide cover for AQI or other anti-liberationists.

Posted by: Brian H at September 8, 2007 06:25 PM

Fantastic job as usual, I just hit your tip jar with a little something. Please tell your Marines how much we appreciate their hard work and sacrifice. These guys make me proud to live in America.

Posted by: dianainsa at September 8, 2007 07:25 PM

I have sat and cried just seeing the pics and reading the article. I have 2 Marines in Fallujah right now and I cannot wait to show this article to any and everyone I see. Do you think if enough of us sent the article to foxnews they would put this story up front? NOWHERE else have I seen pics like these, of the actual work that has been going on. Thank you just doesn't seem enough for the author and I know it isn't enough for these Marines. And I would venture to say neither is expecting one. But from the bottom of this Marine momma's heart, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU.

Posted by: momma L at September 8, 2007 08:41 PM

God bless'em all.

Oh, and I'm betting on the pretty little gal in the pink dress being the Military housing one of these days. ZOWIE she'll be gorgeous!

Posted by: Foxfier at September 9, 2007 12:10 AM

"I have sat and cried just seeing the pics and reading the article."

Indeed it must be gratifying to see something positive come out of the hard work your family has put into Iraq.

Posted by: Saskboy at September 9, 2007 02:10 PM

Wouldn't it be nice if reports like this one were broadcast just after oh I don't know certain senators poo-poo'd the notion of any security gains.

Fantastic report, especially providing examples of what some of the iraqi's themselves think which is always interesting.

Posted by: Knighthawk at September 9, 2007 04:11 PM

Thanks Bill , stay safe

Posted by: serurier at September 9, 2007 07:40 PM

The picture of the pretty little girl in the pink dress is very interesting from a public relations standpoint. Her mother is obviously watching over her from the door behind her but she's also not dragging the young lady away from the American Boogeyman soldiers she's so intently watching.

The young lady and her mother very clearly show the new Iraqi attitude toward the Americans is one of watchfulness and no longer one of fear and mistrust.

Looks like what we're doing is working.


Posted by: otpu at September 10, 2007 03:36 PM

Great stuff, thanks for sharing.

Posted by: TallDave at September 10, 2007 03:41 PM

Semper Fi Devil Dogs thanks for you service in the war zone.Your in our prayers. 3/4 Marines Viet Nam 1967.

Posted by: RR Smith at September 11, 2007 08:04 AM

que impresionante eso los felicito por todo

Posted by: laura at September 15, 2007 05:14 PM


Posted by: PAOLA ANDREA SANCLEMENTE at September 18, 2007 07:43 PM

queremos que la gente de usa, realmente pueda hacer algo bueno por esa gente y por el mundo entero, y que nuestros familiares lleguen vivos a sus hogares, que dios los bendiga.

Posted by: milena sanclemente at September 20, 2007 12:22 PM



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