U.S. Marines fear that they are ‘sleeping with the enemy’
Reporter “discovers deep mistrust between American troops and Iraqi soldiers they are training”
If the US marines and Iraqi national guardsmen living at the Karmah military barracks near Fallujah talk at all, they speak through the bars of a small window.
The Americans peer out from the ammunition room, filled with weapons confiscated from suspected insurgents, trading banter with the Iraqis who stand on tiptoes in a huddle outside, their eyes squinting against the glare of the late summer sun.
Though there is laughter, things are not as they should be at Karmah barracks. “This is camp poison,” whispers a marine. “Watch your back.”
The sinister atmosphere at Karmah barracks is not difficult to understand. The marines are convinced that many, perhaps most, of the 140 members of the Iraqi National Guard (ING) they share the camp with are double agents working on behalf of the insurgents holding Fallujah.
In the past week alone the marines have arrested five of the guardsmen, including their commanding officer, Capt Ali Mohammed Jasim.
It is just one example that a Vietnam-era experiment Washington resurrected to form the backbone of an offensive planned by the end of the year to retake Fallujah, the crucible of Iraq’s insurgency, is going disastrously wrong. Under the Combined Action Platoon (CAP) scheme, US soldiers train Iraqi guardsmen, live with them in the same barracks and venture out on joint patrols, all steps towards a longer-term objective of the withdrawal of American troops.
The plan was first developed in Vietnam, where US marines cohabited with local militias to defend villages from Vietcong raids. At the same time the marines trained the militiamen with the intention of turning them into an effective fighting force, but they were too ill-equipped and underpaid for the plan to have much success.
Mark II of the CAP programme seems to be running into even greater problems. Across the country American troops work with their poorly equipped Iraqi colleagues in an atmosphere soured by distrust – especially in provinces where the insurgency is at its most intense.
With Fallujah under insurgent control, US marines such as those at Karmah are trying to secure the surrounding al-Anbar province.
Their efforts have been blighted by remotely detonated mines, known as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), targeting the patrols that nervously venture out on to the lawless streets of towns that have become insurgent havens. Since June, some platoons have seen up to half their men wounded in action. Eighty marines have been killed in the province.
The marines are convinced that the ING knows where many of the IEDs are planted, and even say they have caught guardsmen in the act of laying mines. When joint patrols come under attack, they say, the ING simply refuses to fight. As the relationship worsens, more and more ING are simply refusing to turn up at work. Of the 140 guardsmen based at Karmah an average of between 40 and 60 turn up on any given day. At other CAP barracks, that number is sometimes as low as two. Since the arrest of the Karmah ING captain, the rapport has become even more sullen. The marines sit under canvas shelters, convinced that the guardsmen lurking in their dormitories are traitors and murderers.
“We know when this place is about to come under mortar attack because the ING suddenly disappear,” one marine said, staring across the dusty compound at two guardsmen smoking on a wooden bench. “We are supposed to be fighting together, instead we are sleeping with the enemy.”
In their bare dormitory angry guardsmen queue up to tell their side of the story, accusing the marines of arrogance, bullying and a cavalier disregard for civilian life. Twelve guardsmen spoke to The Daily Telegraph, but all refused to identify themselves, saying they feared reprisals from the marines.
“The first mistake they make is that when they are attacked they don’t just fire at the terrorists, they shoot everywhere,” one said.
Other guardsmen alleged that the marines publicly humiliated and even physically assaulted them for minor misdemeanours. Another said he, like many others, had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in planting an IED. He said he was held for 14 days in a tiny “cooler” and then tortured during interrogation.
“They would make me drink water and drink water and then kick me in the stomach till I vomited,” he said.