Apologizing for Iraqi forces all in a day’s work for U.S. Marines
HUSAYBAH, Iraq — Shortly after nightfall, Khalid Kadem was relaxing with his mother and sister when he heard a thud in the courtyard outside his home.
A moment later, a team of Iraqi army soldiers stormed into his living room, assaulted him and accused him of being a terrorist.
“They were punching me in the face and accusing me of plotting against them,” the 26-year-old store worker said. “They just barged in, and they didn’t give the women an opportunity to cover themselves.”
Meanwhile, outside the home, a squad of U.S. Marines was puzzled by the unexpected aggressiveness of the Iraqi army unit they were with on a joint patrol.
“We heard all this yelling and screaming. We were like ‘What the hell is going on?’” Cpl. David Rios recalled.
“We were trying to look friendly, not be aggressive, giving out soccer balls and stuff. We were just out trying to meet people and calm this place down,” he said.
Since the Marines swept through last week and took control of this dusty border town and former insurgent stronghold, they’ve sent out daily foot patrols designed to cultivate goodwill among local residents.
But the incident involving the Iraqi army’s hectoring raid highlights the challenges U.S. troops face when working alongside local forces who often have limited training and a vastly different understanding of how to exercise civil authority.
Across Iraq, U.S. troops are making every effort to work with Iraqi forces. The joint efforts help put an Iraqi face on many politically sensitive operations. They also help ready the local forces to take control of the country and pave the way for the U.S. to reduce the number of deployed troops deployed here.
But taking Iraqi soldiers out into the field is not always helpful, troops say.
“Every time something like this happens, it just creates another insurgent,” said Lt. Col. Robert Glover, head of the civil affairs unit here.
“It’s counterproductive because you’re not trying to alienate anyone here, you are trying to build bridges."
Sectarian tensions may also fuel tensions between the Iraqi army soldiers and civilians, Marines said.
Most Iraqi army soldiers here are Shiites from eastern and southern Iraq, while this western part of the Euphrates River valley is predominantly Sunni.
“You’re dealing with the whole Sunni-Shia thing,” said 2nd Lt. Paul Haagenson, a platoon leader who helps oversee the city center here.
Complaints of Iraqi army misconduct are common in the mostly Sunni areas of Anbar province, one of the most violent and volatile areas of the country.
“I’ve seen this down in Ramadi a lot,” said Glover, who recently came here from a civil affairs post in the provincial capital.
“People came in and say ‘Iraqi forces came in with the U.S. Marines and they tore up my house and they stole money,’” Glover said.
After hearing about the assault, Glover and several other Marines from the civil affairs unit returned to Kadem’s home to smooth over any hard feelings.
“I apologize for what happened here,” Glover told Kadem.
Kadem received the Marines warmly, welcoming them into his living room and offering them food.
“America forces are very professional,” Glover told the man and his family. “The Marines are here to take care of people and to take care of the town — not to do these kinds of things.”
The man and his sister and mother all said they welcomed the Marines into their city, yet they criticized the local forces.
“It’s just the Iraqi army. They come in here and they think they can do whatever they want because they wear a uniform,” Kadem said.
Several Marines sat in the family’s living room for about 30 minutes and talked about the situation in their city since the Marine’s invasion.
Glover said apologizing for the Iraqi army takes up a significant portion of his time as a civil affairs officer.
“It was never part of the job description. It shouldn’t be that way, but that’s just the way it is,” he said.