HADITHA, Iraq, March 5 (UPI) -- First of two parts
More than a year and three battalions completing tours of duty there after it happened, U.S. Marines serving in the Iraqi city of Haditha still feel the psychological weight of the November 2005 alleged massacre when a squad of Marines shot and killed 24 Hadithans, shortly after one of their troops was killed by an improvised explosive device.
Hadithans don't bring up the incident with the Americans much. It may be purely a political calculation, telling the occupiers only what they want to hear. It may be low expectations of anyone in power, or a heightened tolerance of violence, or simply war weariness. It may be, as the Marines in Haditha believe, that the locals have moved on and welcome the security improvements wrought in the last three months.
From late 2004 to much of 2006, the town was firmly in the hands of insurgents and terrorists who had liquidated the local police department. The last year has seen major fighting as U.S. forces struggled to oust an entrenched insurgency.
"Right here in the soccer stadium they dragged in the police and shot them," said U.S. Lt. Col. Jim Donnellan, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. "A lot of police just went away. A lot of Shia that were living here at the time -- Haditha was a pretty well educated area -- a lot of them were executed in the soccer stadium. I hear figures that vary wildly."
The physical intimidation of locals is a familiar formula, but the insurgents in Haditha had tapped into a different source of power that Donnellan's men did not break the code on until last fall.
One of the factors working to U.S. advantage across rural Anbar province is the powerful tribal structures. If a sheik decides to fight the insurgency -- as they increasingly are -- he can command hundreds of men and thousands of families to cooperate.
Donnellan does not enjoy that advantage in Haditha, a metropolitan city with a teaching college, a hospital, and many retired government officials from Baghdad.
"Some people here ask you who their sheik is, they respond like it's a trite question. 'Yes I trace my lineage back to this tribe' but they certainly don't defer back to whatever the sheik says," he said.
The pressure point in Haditha is economic. Under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, sugar, rice and flour, benzene for cars and propane -- the essential ingredients for day to day living in Iraq -- were all centrally controlled.
"It's this whole partial socialism kind of thing that the insurgents fully understood. The terrorists figured it out pretty quickly and the coalition was the last," Donnellan said. "We did not realize how much sway a propane distribution guy has on a neighborhood. If the insurgents can corrupt that guy or intimidate that guy, there's a whole village that doesn't get the propane.
"So were talking to, like, city councils and they were showing up for meetings in nice robes, and we'd talk about electricity or what have you," he said.
Meanwhile, the former mayor of Haditha -- working with the other side -- was doling out electric power, government food and fuel in accordance with the wishes of insurgents. Villages and blocks that cooperated with them benefited. Those that didn't were cut off. And the shortages were blamed in many cases on American security measures.
"Now we can counter that quicker now that we know who's pulling strings," Donnellan said.
"It's the worst 'Sopranos' meets al-Qaida type of thing," Donnellan said. "Because the insurgents were from here, and they had this marriage of convenience with the terrorists, and you had a fairly well educated bunch of retired Iraqi army generals who understood military operations, for a long time in the Triad you had a pretty bad combination of factors."
Donnellan, like many American military officers here, has a remarkable empathy for the people who cooperate with the insurgents.
"You can't dime out the terrorists because they'll kill the government food guy, and he's the only one with a bongo truck and a permit to pull propane," he said.
And the Iraqi government's food distributor is unlikely to resist the pressure of insurgents on his own.
"If someone is threatening to kill you and you're still getting a pay check (even if you don't do your job), it's kind of a no-brainer," Donnellan said.
Haditha is a cross-roads into Iraq, connecting Syria and Jordan to Baghdad, Ramadi and Mosul and hence prime real estate for foreign fighters and insurgents looking to haul weapons, funding and people into key cites in Iraq's interior.
They capitalize on the extreme hospitality to strangers characteristic of Arab culture -- strangers in need of food or a place to sleep are rarely turned away. As they make their way through they pay people to plant road side bombs and they leave behind strategic caches of weapons that insurgent cells can draw on to resupply.
"I'm not saying its more kinetic or difficult than anywhere else in the (Area of Operations) but you had a lot of jerks coming through here," Donnellan said.
Next: Why Haditha has to be a police state