SAQLAWIYA, Iraq -- The police outpost here is supposed to house 90 armed members of Iraq's National Guard. Their job is to keep watch over a stretch of six-lane highway, deterring insurgents from laying roadside bombs and trying to blow up a bridge over the nearby Tharthar Canal.
But when the U.S. Marine commander responsible for the area visited the outpost this month, he found six bedraggled guardsmen on duty. None of them was patrolling. The Iraqi officer in charge was missing. And their weapons had been locked up by the Marines after a guardsman detonated a grenade inside the compound.
Iraqi National Guardsmen, shown here at a ceremony in Baghdad, have sometimes refused to fight fellow Iraqis.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
The unit's demise underscores the degree to which errors committed by civilian and military leaders during the 15 months of rule by the U.S.-led occupation authority continue to impede the U.S. effort to combat a vexing insurgency and rebuild Iraq's shattered government and economy. Recovering from those mistakes has become the principal challenge facing the United States in Iraq, three months after the transfer of political authority to an interim government.
"We're trying to climb out of a hole," said an official with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. American missteps during the occupation, the official said, "continue to haunt us."
The errors have had a major impact on almost every aspect of the U.S. agenda here, from pacifying rebel-held cities to holding elections in January to accelerating reconstruction projects. In each area, past mistakes have made it far tougher to accomplish U.S. objectives and those of Iraq's interim government.
The guardsmen in Saqlawiya, who come from the nearby city of Fallujah, were not always this pathetic. Early this year, their battalion was lauded by the U.S. military for repelling insurgent attacks on the mayor's office and police headquarters in Fallujah. They were, as one Army officer put it in March, "a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark place."
The battalion disintegrated in April because of an order by the White House and the Pentagon to have the Marines lay siege to Fallujah -- a decision top Marine officials now acknowledge was a profound mistake. As Marines advanced into the city, the guardsmen were put in an untenable position: Either flee, or join the Marines in fighting Iraqi neighbors -- and risk violent retribution. The guardsmen fled.
When the Marines were ordered by Washington to pull out of the city and hand over security responsibilities to a brigade of former Iraqi army soldiers -- another grave miscalculation, in the eyes of Marine commanders -- the National Guardsmen returned to work. They manned checkpoints and conducted patrols with the former soldiers, who called themselves the Fallujah Brigade.
But before long, an alliance of foreign-born and local insurgents eviscerated both the Fallujah Brigade and the two National Guard battalions in the city.
Soldiers in the brigade who had been former insurgents were either lured back into the resistance or intimidated into submission. The commanders of both National Guard battalions were kidnapped by militants loyal to Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant who is now the most wanted man in Iraq. One commander was beheaded; the other is missing and presumed dead. As soon as the commanders were captured, the battalions melted away.
Some Marine officers contend that if they had not been ordered to invade Fallujah after the March 31 killing and mutilation of four American security contractors, the city's National Guard battalions and security forces would be functioning. Although both units had incompetents and insurgent sympathizers in their ranks, the Marine officers maintain that the units could have served as a helpful ally to U.S. forces in the effort to squelch the insurgency.
Now, the Marines are trying to reconstitute the two battalions, mustering members to report to outposts in such nearby towns as Saqlawiya. In some ways, it is exactly what the Army's 82nd Airborne Division did a year ago, when it formed the two battalions.
In an attempt to build discipline, guardsmen who do not show up in their desert camouflage uniforms and with their identification cards are sent home without pay. Training and patrolling are secondary. Attendance is the first challenge.
"The soldiers on duty, they will be paid, they will be taken care of," Marine Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, the commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment, told Iraqi Lt. Wissam Hamid.