Confidence is key: The evolution of the Fallujah Police Department, Part One

Iraqi Policeman pose in front of the Andalus Precinct in western Fallujah. Photo by Bill Ardolino.

Bill Ardolino was embedded with the Fallujah Police Transition Team and the Iraqi Police in January and September 2007. His January analysis, “On the Baby Steps” in “the Bullseye,” can be found here. In the following analysis, Ardolino compares the state of the Fallujah Police Department during his two embeds.

In January 2007, Fallujah Police Headquarters was a besieged target in the middle of the turbulent city, a walled refuge for hunted police officers. The Iraqi Police, or IPs, hid their faces, guarded the station, manned their version of a 9-1-1 dispatch, and were mortared and shot on a regular basis. They rarely ventured out except to return home or pick up an occasional IED, dead body or injured civilian. There was little police patrol presence on Fallujah’s streets, thus ceding insurgents the freedom of movement to stage attacks and intimidate the population. The IPs wouldn’t patrol and the Marines couldn’t compel them past their fear. And given the steady flow of grievously injured and slain cops, it was difficult to blame them.

As former Police Transition Team (PiTT) Commander Major Brian Lippo said at the time: “For the overall success of the mission, the [Iraqi Police] have got to get out there in the streets and take a more active role in patrolling   driving around the streets in your white police car, showing the flag and letting the bad guys know that ‘hey I have to get off this street corner.'”

There were hopeful signs: an increase in recruitment and new Iraqi leadership that talked the talk and fitfully began to walk the walk. But the city grew even more violent over the next two months, with attacks and casualties reaching an all-time peak in March as al Qaeda in Iraq attempted to break the will of the police. One Marine remarked on the nightmares he acquired after seeing the second-story landing of the police station covered in black bags, slick with blood and broken bodies.

But then, remarkably, things changed.

Members of the Fallujah Police Transition Team pose at Police Headquarters. From left to right: Sgt Brendan Davis, LCpl Sam Fancher, unidentified, Cpl David Taylor, LCpl Brent Barr, Cpl Darryl Gibson, Cpl Reymundo Soto (kneeling), HM3 Robeniol, LCpl Dionicio Francisco, LCpl Kevin Mummey, Maj Todd Sermarini.

Today, police officers are the ones with the momentum, showing their faces and driving around in unarmored police trucks. Citizens have begun to leave their houses to play soccer, clean up rubble and paint streets and medians. Fallujah, and especially its police officers, display something rarely seen in January: confidence.

“When I got here, all these guys had up-armor on all the trucks,” said Sergeant Richard Arias, squad leader for the Police Transition Team’s Alpha Team. “You look at an IP truck now, it’s just the white and blue, the lights on top and that’s it. Why? Because they got the city up to a point that they don’t get shot at all the time now, and if something is going on, people go up to the police and the police will take care of it.”

“[The IPs are] out on the streets, on the checkpoints, walking around   out there engaging the public,” said PiTT Commander Major Anthony Sermarini. “Their presence limits the mobility of the insurgents, limits their ability to operate. The insurgents will then flow out of that area; they take the path of least resistance. From there the IPs have the ability to engage with the public, from there the public gains confidence in the IPs, the IPs gain confidence in themselves, they develop a better relationship, they work together. [Civilians] say ‘hey this is good without the insurgents around,’ and that works well. And it starts to spread, the confidence and the relationship between the IPs and the people, which is the absolute critical element to this.”

“Hey, let’s go out and get blown up today!”

The trick to getting the IPs out the door and on patrol in the first place was the persistent encouragement and shared risk-taking of PiTT advisors, and a reinvigorated strategy of force projection by the 2nd Battalion, 6th regiment Marines, who rotated into control of the Fallujah Area of Operations (AO) in March.

The PiTT was expanded from its January incarnation to two teams of 26 Marines led by Sermarini, who is the overall commander, and Executive Officer 1st Lieutenant Kyle Reid, who previously served as a police advisor in 2006. In addition, five Marines have been permanently assigned to the Joint Communication Center (a sort of 9-1-1 dispatch for the city) and five civilian police serve as International Police Advisors, advising the Iraqis on the basics of law enforcement. Law Enforcement Professional Rich Crawford teaches the Iraqis how to conduct investigations and gather evidence for trial.

Previous advisors had slowly nudged the IPs to begin offensives against the insurgents that consisted of night raids based on targeted intelligence, but the challenge was to get the cops into the streets during the day. Only a daytime presence would build the requisite confidence of civilians in their police force. The Marines eventually accomplished this by showing them the way.

“What really got the IPs out the door was the Marines doing joint operations with them,” said Sgt. Arias. “[T]he plan we put to work was, ‘Ok, let’s play big brother. I’ll be your big brother, let’s go out there, we’ll give you protection.’ So we started doing missions. Now, once we got the IPs to a certain level of confidence that we had their back whenever they got shot at, that we were there to protect them, that we were there to teach them tactics, how to clear a room, how to move and clear a corner, once they got to that level they gained more confidence and started going out by themselves. Now every other day, we let them go out by themselves, if they call in for support we help them out. But they’re at a point right now where if a mission comes down, the dispatcher will call an IP unit and they will go themselves,”

“At first the IPs wouldn’t go, and we’d tell them we were going out on patrol ourselves,” said Sermarini. “We’d even joke with them, ‘Hey let’s go out and get blown up today!’  and slowly, they started coming with us.”

“Our PiTT team has worked really well with these guys, the majority of these guys are combat arms   so they’ve done combat operations,” said Reid. “I think sitting down with the IPs, Major Aziz their operations officer, Colonel Faisal, Lieutenant Colonel Isa, discussing these plans along with the guys from 2/6, tactically showing them how it can be done, basically showing them the way, and letting them know, no matter where they want to go, what they want to do, we’ll go with them to give them that warm and fuzzy that, ‘hey we’re not sending you to the slaughter; we’re doing this for a reason.'”

Operation Alljah and the Vehicle Ban

Police distribute food bags to citizens during Operation Alljah.

Beyond building the police officers’ confidence to conduct patrols, the key to reclaiming the city has been Operation Alljah, a strategy jointly designed and implemented by Marines, Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army. An evolved variant of the plan successfully used in Ramadi, Alljah represents all aspects of counterinsurgency:

Commenced on May 29   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.

“[W]ith Operation Alljah, we started swarming these places in the city with a lot of Iraqi Army, a lot of police, a lot of Marines and basically pushed any remaining guys out of the city or we arrested them on our targeted raids … in the mornings,” said Reid. “I think not only did it make it safer, but it really built up their confidence.”

In addition to further limiting insurgent movement in and out of each area, barricading the city into discrete, manageable security districts has created a counterinsurgency cascade. Initial security is immediately followed by local employment and civil affairs work (aid and reconstruction), and the engagement of the population breeds a whole new level of security via tips. Once secured, insurgents now have a very difficult time re-infesting a district because of opposition from Iraqi Security Forces and citizens alike.

A Fallujan man and his young son receive a soccer ball from Iraqi Policemen.

A partial vehicle ban, instituted at the request of the mayor and Iraqi Police after a murderous car bomb attack on a funeral, has halted personal vehicle traffic while still permitting commercial vehicles and a bus service for the population. The ban has given the Marines, police and Iraqi Army the breathing space needed to complete Operation Alljah and further limits insurgent movement, especially curtailing spectacular suicide attacks intended to disrupt the establishment of precincts. The repeal of the ban after Ramadan will test the long-term efficacy of the precinct model.

Police Leadership Steps Up

A frustrating challenge to previous attempts to strengthen the police was a string of bad Iraqi leaders coupled with limited Marine influence to hire and fire them. In January 2007, the Marines and the city of Fallujah got lucky with the arrival of Colonel Faisal Ismail Hussein as police chief.

“Colonel Faisal is the man, they love him around here,” said 5th Battalion, 10th Marines Civil Affairs Group Staff Sergeant Mauricio Piedrahita.

Fallujah Police Chief Colonel Faisal Ismail Hussein. Photo by 1st Lieutenant Barry Edwards.

In an anonymous interview with Faisal during his second week on the job in January, he displayed charisma, intelligence and unusual frankness. A former Republican Guard Commando and insurgent with the 1920’s Revolution Brigade, PiTT advisors were skeptical of his leadership abilities, having been burned before by police chiefs who “talked a good game” but failed to deliver actions. Faisal eventually beat initial expectations by making a host of aggressive moves to target the insurgency and corruption in the city.

“Faisal is a very candid person. He says what he thinks and I seriously think he has a genuine interest in Iraq getting better and Fallujah becoming a more peaceful place, whereas [when] you talk to some other Iraqi leaders, there’s always that thing in the back of your mind, ‘what’s your angle?'” said Reid. “I really think that his angle is that he wants it better, not only for his family, but for other people. And I think he’s very proactive. He’s definitely a guy who leads by example. He’ll go out on the streets with his police and he’s not a guy who sits back in his office and criticizes, he goes out there and takes a look at it himself. And I think the IPs really respond to that.”

“Faisal has provided a lot of energy to what’s going on here,” said Sermarini. “I think, his agenda aside — and everybody here has their own agenda — I believe his ultimate goal, and obviously with him at the top, getting all the wasta [influence] for being at the top, his goal is to have a safe, secure Fallujah, along the lines of [our goal]. There may be some course corrections, deviations from what our vision is, but it is roughly the same.”

Specific examples of Faisal’s impact include the arrest of corrupt employees of local propane and flour factories who were stealing and gouging local residents, compelling aggressive anti-insurgency operations by the police, cooperating with the Iraqi Army leadership, and supporting and enforcing the non-commercial vehicle ban, a tough, potentially unpopular decision. Reid called it “one of the hardest calls he had to make since he’s been out here, and it’s been the most influential.”

The next installment will detail the rise of courts and correctional systems, law enforcement training and the challenges to continued progress for Fallujah’s Police.

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  • Aaron says:

    “A former Republican Guard Commando and insurgent with the 1920’s Revolution Brigade,”
    Now, that’s called winning the hearts and minds. Bravo.
    It’s especially interesting to re-read the old interview.

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 10/03/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  • Iraq Central 10-04-07

    All the Iraq News for today, 10-04-07. The best news of the day about the War on Terror from the best blogs on the web.
    The Peace Corps with Muscles — Michael Totten
    Al Douri forms nationalist Sunni coalition; 1920s Revolution Brigades denounces …

  • KnightHawk says:

    A very interesting read, can’t wait for part two.

  • Texas Gal says:

    One of my friends lost his son-in-law during the early days of trying to build the Fallujah Police, it’s really heart warming to see this. I’m sure he’s smiling down on them now.

    Thanks for this Bill, I really look forward to part 2.

  • Tad Scott says:

    Great work. drop me a lin.


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