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