Shuffling paperwork to victory: The Evolution of the Fallujah Police Department

The courtyard of the Fallujah Police Station at night. Photo by Bill Ardolino.

Bill Ardolino looks at the dramatic changes in the Fallujah Police Department from January 2007 to today. This is part two of a two-part series. To read part one, see Confidence is Key: The Evolution of the Fallujah Police Department.

In January the correctional process in Fallujah was a two-room jail at police headquarters and an anonymous investigative judge “who wrote in green [ink],” according to former Police Transition Team (PiTT) Executive Officer Tad Scott. As IPs began to conduct mass roll-ups of suspected insurgents, the jail became nightmarishly crowded and the broken judicial system would spit out detainees for lack of trial or evidence, if they were not summarily executed by vigilantes and dumped in the river, something known euphemistically as “a trip to the Euphrates hospital.” Fixing these systems was an imperative.

“The next step in the criminal justice system is broken; the judicial system is compromised,” said former PiTT Commander Major Brian Lippo in January. “You’ve got judges here who are afraid to take criminal cases because of threats to their lives. You don’t even have a local prison to hold them; if (the Iraqi Police) wanted to make more arrests, they have nowhere to hold these guys.”

“They were doing mass roll-ups,” said current PiTT Commander Major Anthony Sermarini. “Even in 2004, they were saying there might have been 2,000 insurgents in the city. That’s certainly not the case even at the beginning of this year, things weren’t that good, no, but there was not a brigade of insurgents running around. They started doing mass roll-ups, and a minute percentage of the people they were rolling up might have been bad guys. So what they were doing was flooding a system that, first of all, was stopped. Now the problem was, at least as far back as maybe last summer: for a good three to four months before I got here, there were no judges working at all, so the judicial process stopped at the jail.”

The jail was expanded to a larger facility elsewhere in the Fallujah Government Center, the walled compound in the center of the city that houses police headquarters and various government buildings. While the new jail still does not meet Western standards of incarceration, the larger facilities have averted the overcrowding crisis that plagued previous detainments after counterinsurgency operations. And the judicial process is up and running after Fallujan judges returned to work and a provincial court was set up in Ramadi.

“At first, the RCT [Marine Regimental Combat Team] was able to   get a judicial ‘tiger team’ — some judges from Baghdad — to come down and hear cases. The [local] judges were always here, they just weren’t working because they were afraid,” said Sermarini. After the initial assistance from the tiger teams, the Marines and IPs “got the [local] judges back to work in mid-July, so there’s a judicial process now, guys are being seen by the judges and released, held for further investigation or sent on to the al Anbar criminal court, which has just started.”

“In the Iraqi judicial process, investigative judges are inquisitive rather than adversarial, the arbitrators of the facts,” added Law Enforcement Professional (LEP) advisor Rich Crawford. “They’re like a combination DA [District Attorney] and magistrate. Three things can happen when the guy goes in front of the investigative judge. He can say: ‘There’s not enough here, he’s released; he’s bound for further investigation for a period of time; or, hey, the evidence is sufficient so I’m referring him to the criminal court.’ Once they go there, they go in front of a three-judge tribunal and   from there it’s two options: release or prison.”

Iraqi Police and a Marine in front of the Andalus Precinct. Far right: 2/6 XO Maj. George S. Benson. Second to right: Major Mohammed, Chief of the Andalus Precinct.

In a recent round of trials, 178 suspected insurgents were put before the investigative judges and 140 had sufficient evidence to be referred to trial. This rate of referral, partially based on improved evidence collection, also helps curtail intimidation of local contracting, as businessmen begin to feel that if they turn in individuals who threaten them to extort a percentage of pay, there’s a good chance that criminal will actually go to jail and stay there.

The police leadership has also recognized that not all detainees are intractable, as much of the insurgent labor pool was fed by young men with little-to-no prospects for local employment. Scott used to refer to this distinction as “telling the good-bad guys from the bad-bad guys.”

“If you go down to the jail right now, those guys are separating people by crime,” said Sergeant Richard Arias, squad leader for the PiTT’s Alpha Team. “If he’s an actual insurgent and they have proof, they put him in a special room. And the others are just separated from them, so they don’t start making that link, those connections, so when they get out they know more than when they came in. And also I go down there to check on people just to make sure everybody is healthy, and those guys … in a way, yes, they have done wrong but they’re not as bad as you might imagine. IPs treat [the suspected insurgents-for-pay] in a different way, and they start showing them, ‘Hey, you guys are doing wrong, you’ve got to fix yourselves.’ [Police Chief] Faisal will go down and talk to them, ‘Hey look, you guys [messed] up. Just fix yourself, and when you go out and become a free citizen, go out and start a new life.’ And these guys are actually doing that.”

Making ethical patrolmen, investigators, and administrators

As the focus has shifted from warfighting to policing, the PiTT has gained more breathing space to train the Iraqis in principles of law enforcement.

“We’re here to develop a professional Iraqi police force that’s based in the rule of law,” said Sermarini. “We’re trying to dispel some of the notions that it is a heavy-handed [force] – which it may have been in the past – we’re trying to change that perception of the Iraqi police and develop them into a disciplined, professional, rule-of-law organization.”.

This effort has met with mixed results. Some Marines describe instances where Iraqi cops have abused their power by stealing fuel or food from street vendors. Rumors of summary executions of suspected insurgents persist. This problem is endemic to Iraqi society, especially among holdovers from preinvasion security forces.

“We do ethics training for the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], and some of these guys, a lot of the ones over 30, no, you’re not going to change that mindset,” said Major Joel Poudrier, a member of a Military Transition Team. “But a lot of the young guys want to be respected [by civilians], to do good, and you’ll see them nodding their heads and really getting it.”

Major Anthony Sermarini, Commander Fallujah Police Transition Team (center) meets with IPs from the Jolan Precinct.

Another training focus is teaching regular patrolmen how to conduct basic evidence collection, while also developing detectives with the Major Crimes Unit, who build the cases against suspects.

“What we call SSE – sensitive site exploitation, or crime scene investigation – is not what you would see in America; and a lot of that has to do with the fact that prior to the last couple of months, you couldn’t stay in one area for 20 minutes   [because] you’d start eating RPGs, small-arms fire, and mortars,” said Sermarini. “So when they would hit a house, they would say, ‘There’s two guys and a pile of weapons,’ lay the weapons out, get the guy there, take a picture of the guy with the cache, load him up, load up the cache and get out of there. [But now] we’re at the beginning   of evidence collection.”

A final focus towards standing up the Fallujah police is establishing a district headquarters bureaucracy. This headquarters will request logistics from the provincial capital in Ramadi, and then push them down to the 10 precincts in the city. Problematically, supplies are only a trickle from the Ministry of the Interior in Baghdad to Ramadi and then on to Fallujah, and Iraqis are famously poor at adopting mundane aspects of administration. Teaching them to submit requests to create a paper trail even when those requests are denied is a frustrating, difficult process for the American advisors.

This was exemplified by watching Sermarini and Andalus Precinct Captain Major Mohammed conduct a version of Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” routine during a status meeting. Sermarini tried to explain that Mohammed needs to document the gas his patrolmen use while responding to calls if he wants to requisition more fuel. The Iraqi officer kept insisting that he could not document the names of informants who made calls because they wanted to remain anonymous, whereas Sermarini simply wanted him to record the gas used responding to the tips. After three attempts, the PiTT commander gave up to try another day, saying “This isn’t a rabbit hole I want to go down right now.”

Challenges: Logistics are Key

Sergeant Richard Arias, squad leader for the PiTT’s Alpha Team.

A major problem that could stall progress is the difficulty of getting resources from the Ministry of the Interior in Baghdad all the way down the supply chain to cops in Fallujah. The Fallujans assert that the Shia-run central government withholds supplies because they dislike the Sunni enclave, but the Marines here suspect that it is at least partly caused by a broken system.

“I think a lot of it is just building up that logistical system to the Ministry of the Interior,” said PiTT Executive Officer 1st Lieutenant Kyle Reid. “Teaching the IPs how   they request supplies, and when MOI shorts supplies, they’re not not giving it to you because they don’t like Fallujah, it’s because they don’t have it. I’m not saying it’s just [poor administration], but I really think that the system was broken in the past when it came to making requests, and following requests, tracking and maintenance. I think they’re getting better at that. What we’ve been trying to do in the last couple of months is standardize requests, make sure they follow up, and when they receive that yes or no, get the reason why. By doing this they have firepower to say, ‘Hey, we sent in these requests three months in a row and they weren’t fulfilled, why not?’ They’re getting responses and they’re starting to get more gear. [It’s improving] very slowly. I’ve seen in the past month-and-a-half, it’s started to get a little better, but I’m not going to see the real picture for about another month or two.”

This painstaking development of administrative systems, along with political reconciliation and the central government’s willingness to supply al Anbar, are extremely important and questionable factors in maintaining counterinsurgency momentum in the province. At this point, the key to finishing the insurgency in Fallujah may be teaching Iraqis how to shuffle paper.


Almost every American I spoke with is “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects for the Fallujah PD and the city as a whole. But as a fresh observer of the hopeful situation in September compared to the bleak picture in January, I’d describe the progress and momentum as remarkable. The challenge, as it has always been, is sustaining progress.

“Right now I think it’s on the up and up, but they need to maintain that operational tempo, because if they start falling back into that reaction mode, if they stop doing those presence patrols, there might be a chance for [insurgents] to start filtering back into the city when they allow vehicles back,” said Reid.

And as mentioned, increased support by the national and provincial governments is crucial to maintaining this operational tempo. Where American money leaves off funding reconstruction projects and security forces, Iraqi funds must take its place.

“The vehicle curfew is another one of the things that has curtailed the insurgent activity   but when that vehicle curfew gets lifted, we’re going to see what happens and that’s going to be a challenge. But the IPs’   numbers are to the point now where they have the ability to spread out and effectively control what’s going on in the city, but that depends; their morale is very good right now, but things are going good. It will be interesting to see what happens. I hope things don’t go south, but if they do, I’m cautiously optimistic that the IPs will perform well,” said Sermarini.

In the first two weeks of Ramadan, insurgents have indeed tested the new security situation: A police patrol was attacked with a car bomb – killing one and injuring two police officers – and three terrorists wearing suicide vests were stopped by police as they tried to bypass a checkpoint. Two were shot, while the third panicked and detonated the vest, killing himself and injuring no one else. The vehicle ban should be lifted sometime after Ramadan, and the city may very likely see some spectacular suicide attacks; but casual, survivable insurgency will be much more difficult with the presence of checkpoints and precincts throughout the city, which deny easy escape routes.

Assuming sustainability of resources, it is likely the IPs will maintain security momentum, specifically because the general population seems to have turned against the insurgency. With this loss of popular support and the power to intimidate, the insurgents may have lost Fallujah, even if they do not yet realize it.

Please support The Long War Journal by donating to Public Multimedia Inc., our nonprofit media organization and publisher of The Long War Journal. All donations are 100 percent tax-deductible, and all donations will be used to support The Long War Journal.



  • Indeed, “administration” and “clerical processing” are accurate substitutes for “bureaucracy,” which was intended as a generic description.

  • Neo says:

    Fantastic articles Mr. Ardolino.
    I think you’ve just given us a snapshot at the next critical step in the security process. Getting the rudiments of police administration and justice going, then getting some reliable assistance from the Iraqi Ministry of Interior is absolutely crucial. Without rudimentary government services, all the legislating and political maneuvering in the central government isn’t going to amount to much.

  • Turner says:

    Thanks for the good article. It shows not only the hope but the attitudes and challenges of the Iraqis and they hit the point where efficiency and effectiveness is what it takes to survive.
    I’ve got to figure out how to get my paypal account working so I can donate something.

  • Texas Gal says:

    Thanks Bill!!
    Go Marines! You’re doing a fantastic job!! I am so proud of all of you!!!

    “We do ethics training for the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], and some of these guys, a lot of the ones over 30, no, you’re not going to change that mindset,”

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 10/09/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  • Capt Tad Scott says:

    Bill, This is good stuff. I’m so proud of my guys IPs” I could just cry. Next time you get back please tell everyone I said hello and let them know I’m thinking about them.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram