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In Fallujah, Peace Through Brute Strength
Iraqi City's Fragile Security Flows From Hussein-Era Tactics

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 24, 2008

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- The city's police chief, Col. Faisal Ismail al-Zobaie, a husky man with a leathered face and a firm voice that resonates with authority, ordered an aide to shut his office door. He turned to his computer. Across the screen flashed a video, purportedly made by the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In the video, branches are thrown into a pit the size of a coffin, then doused with kerosene and ignited. The camera pans to three blindfolded men, kneeling, mouths sealed with tape. Six armed men in black masks stand behind them. One declares: "These three men fought and killed al-Qaeda. We will punish them according to Islam." The masked men then kick the three into the burning grave.

Zobaie angrily turned off the video. "How can we show mercy to those people?" he asked. "Do you want me to show mercy to them if I capture them?"

Zobaie, 51, knows the nature of the men in black masks. He is a former insurgent. Now, as the police chief, he has turned against the insurgency, especially al-Qaeda in Iraq. The U.S. military showcases Fallujah as a model city where U.S. policies are finally paying off and is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the region to promote the rule of law and a variety of nation-building efforts.

But the security that has been achieved here is fragile, the result of harsh tactics recalling the rule of Saddam Hussein, who was overthrown five years ago. Even as they work alongside U.S. forces, Zobaie's men admit they have beaten and tortured suspects to force confessions and exact revenge.

In the city's overcrowded, Iraqi-run jail, located inside a compound that also houses a U.S. military base and U.S. police advisers, detainees were beaten with iron rods, according to the current warden. Many were held for months with no clear evidence or due process. They were deprived of food, medical care and electricity and lived in utter squalor, said detainees, Iraqi police and U.S. military officers, who began to address the problems three weeks ago. Last summer, the warden said, several detainees died of heatstroke.

In Zobaie's world, to show mercy is to show weakness. In a land where men burn other men alive, harsh tactics are a small price to pay for imposing order, he said.

"We never tortured anybody," he said. "Sometimes we beat them during the first hours of capture."

His men, he added, abuse suspects because "they don't surrender easily. They don't confess. They say: 'I am innocent. I haven't done anything.' They start to defend themselves."

The story of Zobaie and his police force opens a window onto the Iraq that is emerging after five years of war. American ideals that were among the justifications for the 2003 invasion, such as promoting democracy and human rights, are giving way to values drawn from Iraq's traditions and tribal culture, such as respect, fear and brutality.

"We don't have any Thomas Jeffersons here," said Capt. Sean Miller, a member of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division from Fairfax, Va., who works closely with Zobaie. "What we do have here is generally a group of people who are trying to save a city. It won't fulfill our ideals or what we desire."

Once a member of Hussein's elite Republican Guard, Zobaie is driven by allegiance neither to the United States nor to Iraq's Shiite-run central government. He wants U.S. troops to leave Iraq. But for now, he needs the United States to bolster him with military muscle and funds. And the U.S. military today depends on men such as Zobaie to help bring about the order and security in Iraq that could eventually lead to the end of the American occupation.

"I have realized that Americans love the strong guy," Zobaie said.

A Turning Point

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Zobaie contacted other Republican Guards and military officers. Many had lost their jobs when U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer ordered the disbanding of the Iraqi army. For the next two years, Zobaie said he was a commander in the Sunni insurgency. "Everywhere I could reach, I fought the Americans," he said. "I didn't feel well until I hit the Americans. Then I felt comfortable."

But a turning point came in 2004. U.S. troops and insurgents fought fiercely in Fallujah. Zobaie battled U.S. forces in the nearby town of Zaidan, where he grew up. By mid-2005, he had grown wary of the foreign fighters and radicals, with their brutal tactics and rigid interpretation of Islam. They banned smoking, satellite television, even Pepsi, because the prophet Muhammad never drank it. One day, Zobaie said, he was stopped at a checkpoint in Zaidan and forced by fighters to watch three men saw off another man's head with a knife.

By April 2006, Zobaie had had enough. He joined the new Iraqi army and was appointed a brigade commander. Then senior Shiite officers had him removed. When al-Qaeda in Iraq militants learned he had enlisted, they kidnapped one of his cousins, who had also joined the army. Zobaie never saw him again. Zobaie said he decided to return to fighting, but against a new enemy: "On that date, it became a public war between us and al-Qaeda."

In November, a relative who was a member of al-Qaeda in Iraq kidnapped Zobaie's brother, Ahmed, and beheaded him with a shaving razor. Zobaie found his head and body four days later. The relative disappeared. A week later, Ahmed's wife gave birth to a daughter.

Zobaie become Fallujah's police chief that December. He sent his wife and seven of his eight children to Iraq's Kurdish semiautonomous region for their safety. When it was time to select a code name to speak over police walkie-talkies, he chose "Ahmed."

'Difficult Decisions'

Zobaie opened his office door. Outside, policemen in blue and white uniforms saluted. Down a narrow corridor he walked past 126 small portraits of officers killed on duty. A tall, wiry policeman followed Zobaie -- his 21-year-old son, Saif. He's the man Zobaie trusts most on his force.

The police headquarters, built with U.S. funds, sits inside a large compound ringed by layers of blast walls in the heart of Fallujah, a dusty city of tan buildings, palatial houses and wide streets about 35 miles west of the capital, Baghdad.

Zobaie lives here and sees his family once every 40 days. He wakes at 5 a.m. to pray and polishes his shoes every morning. He's gracious, but once he threw Saif in prison for showing up to work late. When they visit neighborhoods, Zobaie and his senior officers hand out soccer balls and candy to children.

The jail is to the left of his office; to the right is a building housing U.S. advisers and police trainers. U.S. Marines also live nearby in a joint security station.

A year ago, snipers awaited anyone who wandered outside. Hand grenades were often thrown at the gates. Mortar shells landed nearly every day.

To fight back, Zobaie recalled, he began to think like the insurgents. He ordered his force of 1,200 men to monitor car mechanic shops to avert bomb-making. He ordered oxygen tanks inside hospitals counted at the end of each day because the canisters were often used for bombs. Backed by U.S. troops, his men staged raids and detained scores of al-Qaeda in Iraq members. He has also launched a network of intelligence operatives around the city, a system that was the backbone of Hussein's security apparatus, police officials said.

"He made very brave and difficult decisions," said Maj. Mohammed Fayadh al-Esawi, police commander in the city's Andalus neighborhood. "He proved that in a critical era, he was the right person, at the right time, to be police chief."

A City 'Like a Big Jail'

Fallujah today is sealed off with blast walls and checkpoints. Residents are given permits to enter the city. All visitors and their weapons are registered, and police check every car. The U.S. military has divided the city into nine gated communities, each with its own joint security station staffed by U.S. troops and Iraqi police. It also has been buying the loyalties of former Sunni insurgents, paying them $180 a month to join a neighborhood force that works with the police.

Those tactics have damped down the violence. Shops stay open longer, streets are clogged with traffic, and soccer fields brim with children and young men. But for many residents, Fallujah remains a shadow of its former self. "The city is like a big jail," said Abu Ahmed, a well-known doctor who asked that his nickname be used because he has treated people who were brutalized by Zobaie's men.

Zobaie ordered imams at mosques to stop preaching in support of the insurgency and against American troops. The mosques have long been a breeding ground for insurgents. Sheik Abu Abdul Salman, an influential 67-year-old imam, didn't like Zobaie's order. "He's worse than Saddam Hussein," Salman said.

When Zobaie heard of the remark, his voice rose in anger. "Sometimes people are just saying that I did this, I did that. . . . Okay, I tell them, 'Where were you when al-Qaeda was running this city?' "

Meeting the Public

Zobaie drove out of his compound in a gray sport-utility vehicle, with a Glock pistol, issued by the U.S. military, on his left hip. A blue and white police pickup truck mounted with a large machine gun followed. His son Saif manned the gun.

Zobaie's convoy pushed through the city center along a wide, dusty road, past buildings pocked by mortar rounds and bullets. At a taxi stand, Zobaie stepped out, with Saif behind him. A crowd, recognizing the police chief, gathered around him.

"How's the situation?" he asked, smiling as he shook hands. Some said it was good. But a man pushed through the crowd and confronted him, complaining of mistreatment by the police as he entered the city. Zobaie turned serious. He realized, he said, that he had to gain people's trust and confidence.

"Any policeman who does something bad will be punished," he assured the crowd. He then yelled out his cellphone number, in case anyone had more complaints about his men. Many punched his number into their phones.

Obeying 'Only the Force'

Inside a joint security station in the Sinaa neighborhood, Wissam Fezaa, 20, was screaming into a police radio: "Arrest him! Arrest him!" A man did not have the proper badge to drive his truck.

"He will stay for 30 to 40 days in prison as punishment so he'll never do it again," said Fezaa, who was wearing a blue T-shirt with "Fallujah Police" emblazoned on the back. Asked whether the punishment was too harsh, he replied, "If we were not strong, we cannot control the city."

That is how Zobaie's men control Fallujah. With two U.S. Marines a few feet away, Fezaa said that if he caught a criminal or terrorism suspect in front of people, he would not hurt him. And if he captured him alone? "I wouldn't even let him walk afterward," he said. He pulled an electric stun gun from his leg holster. "I've used this before," he declared.

Capt. Mohammed Yousef, a ruddy-faced police investigator in another joint security station, said he sometimes has to beat suspects to make them confess. He has interrogated suspects since 1994, he said, and sees no need to change his methods.

"Since Saddam Hussein until now, Iraq obeys only the force," Yousef said. "We are practicing the same old procedures."

Abu Rahma, 43, a taxi driver and father of four, was a victim of that approach. He was taken into custody last March and tortured in Fallujah's jail. "They kept beating me to force me to confess," he said. "I told them I am not with al-Qaeda, and neither is my brother. They beat me everywhere on my body. . . . Some of my nails were taken out."

Abu Rahma spent 64 days in the cell. On the 65th day, he was released. "It was like being born again," he said.

Zobaie's harshest critics also acknowledge that Fallujah needs a man like him.

Salman, the imam, said Zobaie controls the city with "a fire fist."

"But to be honest, security is restored under this guy," he said. "We have a saying in Iraq: 'Fever is better than death.' We were dead. Life stopped at 2 p.m. Everybody was afraid of themselves, including me. If he didn't use the force, the security wouldn't be restored. We don't like the weak man."

Dire Conditions

The U.S. military advisers give courses in ethics, the rule of law and human rights to Zobaie's force. They teach the men how to gather evidence, write proper records and follow judicial procedures. But newly arrived senior U.S. officers were stunned when they made a surprise visit to Fallujah's jail last month.

Inmates were not given meals. For food, they relied on relatives or bribed corrections officers. There was no money to buy fuel for generators, no power for air conditioners and heaters. Last summer, six detainees died of heatstroke, said Lt. Col. Daoud Suleiman, who was promoted to warden two weeks ago.

Prisoners suffered from skin diseases, Suleiman said. The sewage system was broken. Corrections officers beat the soles of detainees' feet with rods. Doctors visited only once a month.

Iraq's central government, which has long neglected Fallujah, offered no funds for the prison. U.S. military officers had visited routinely for months but taken no action. "It's a typical Iraqi jail," said Maj. Mike Cava, a military judge advocate. "Their standards are different than ours. They just do things the Iraqi way."

Suleiman said he had asked U.S. military officers for help several times. Lt. Col. Mike Callanan, who works on rule of law issues, said fixing the jail was not a focus of the U.S. military until recently. Three weeks ago, the U.S. military started providing meals, clothing, blankets and hygiene kits to detainees.

Callanan said the U.S. military has warned police officials that it does not "condone torture and beatings of prisoners."

Zobaie denied that conditions were bad at the prison and offered to give a tour to a reporter. "This is my prison. This has nothing to do with the Americans," he said. Moments later, he turned to Suleiman and said: "Take him and show him the prison. The Americans are hurting our reputation." But the Marines who secure the compound barred entry to the jail, despite repeated requests to their commander.

Zobaie didn't fire the abusive jail staff. He transferred them to other precincts.

"If you go through the history of Iraq, you will see that only the tough guy can control the country," he said. He rattled off the names of every leader since Iraq's monarchy ended in 1958 with a bloody coup. Hussein, he said, had lasted the longest in power.

Aid and Mistrust

With American help, Zobaie's influence is growing. He presides over school graduations and launches municipal projects. He helps approve reconstruction contracts and meets with tribal sheiks. Last week, a member of parliament visited his office: He needed Zobaie's help to settle a land dispute.

"This politician came to me to solve the problem and not the city council," Zobaie said, beaming. He was wearing a dark suit with a black and silver tie, not his uniform.

An hour later, Zobaie met Maj. Robert C. Rice, of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, and a Fallujah government official to plan a sports day for next month. "You will need to spend a lot of money on it," Zobaie told Rice. "We want this to be a special day." Then, with a wave of his hand, he said he would donate his monthly salary and send a team of policemen to play in the soccer tournament.

Rice was wary. U.S. commanders are concerned that Zobaie's force could become a militia someday. Ninety-five percent of the men are Sunnis from Fallujah, more loyal to sect and tribe than to the government. Three weeks ago, U.S. troops raided the office of Suleiman, the prison warden, searching for illegal weapons, Suleiman said, exposing the mistrust. Rice, referring to the sports day, told Zobaie, "We want to be careful that it does not come across as an Iraqi police-dominated event."

Zobaie has asked the U.S. officers to help obtain more aid for the city from the regional and central governments. Already, the U.S. military is employing street cleaners, building schools and putting up $9 million worth of solar street lights. But some U.S. officers question why insurgents once determined to kill them have so quickly embraced them.

"Every time they talk to you there's an agenda," said Miller, the captain who works closely with Zobaie. "You have to figure out what they want right now. If it is this easy, it begs the question: What are we giving them that we don't know that we're giving them?"

What Zobaie wants is for the U.S. military to hand over full control of Fallujah. He believes Iraq's current leaders are not strong enough. Asked whether democracy could ever bloom here, he replied: "No democracy in Iraq. Ever."

"When the Americans leave the city," he said, "I'll be tougher with the people."

Special correspondent Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.

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