City of Discontent

The souk in the Jolan district of Fallujah in November 2004. Click image to expand.
The souk in the Jolan district of Fallujah in November 2004

FALLUJAH, Iraq When a rocket-propelled grenade was fired near their fortified house in the Jolan district of Fallujah, the Marine advisory team and their Iraqi soldiers went to investigate. Finding that the shooter had fled and that the dust-caked residential area was quiet, Lt. Col. Jim MacVarish, the senior adviser on Mobile Training Team 7, returned to his house to plan the next day’s operations. The advisers live in a fairly defensible compound, with open space to the north and south. To the east, 15 feet away on the other side of the compound wall, was another two-story house occupied by a large Kurdish family. Usually, at twilight children were playing in the driveway. Tonight there were none.

“Where’re the kids?” MacVarish asked the sergeant major of the Iraqi battalion he was advising.

“The irahibeen [terrorists] just killed the father at his work downtown,’” the sergeant major said in a measured tone. “The family is packing to leave.”

The sergeant major was also a Kurd. The bereaved family had relatives in his village and would depart for there the next morning. The irahibeen had broken the legs of the dead man’s brother five days earlier, a warning to leave their home of 30 years and get out of Fallujah. They were Kurds, and they lived next to the Iraqi soldiers and their infidel advisers.

MacVarish, a Marine reservist who taught high-school physics in Massachusetts, was angry and frustrated.

“We don’t know who did it,” he said. “All we can do is offer the widow a little rent for the house. At least she’ll have some money coming in. We’ll tell our comptroller we need the house for security. Hell, it’s true. We’ll occupy it. The last thing we need is terrorists moving in next door. This is a bad neighborhood.”

The Jolan district has the worst reputation in a city with a bad reputation. Laid out in a square grid of wide boulevards, Fallujah comprises 2,000 blocks of courtyard walls, tenements, two-story concrete houses, and squalid alleyways. Half-completed houses, garbage heaps, and wrecks of old cars clutter every neighborhood. In March of 2004, four American contractors were murdered and their burnt bodies dragged through the souk and strung up on a green trestle bridge. The Marines were ordered to seize the city. But when the fighting began, U.S. and Iraqi officials lost their nerve as Al Jazeera painted a grim picture of civilian casualties and ferocious fighting. The Marines were ordered to pull back, and the terrorists ruled the town. Last November, the Marines smashed their way back in.

The Jolan’s souk in September 2005. Click image to expand.
The Jolan’s souk in September 2005

The terrorist headquarters was in the Jolan, the district leading to the green trestle bridge. The Marines fought down the alleys and streets, leaving destruction in their wake. Less than a year later, the Jolan had sprung back to life. The shops near the trestle bridge were overflowing with electrical appliances, satellite dishes, bright pottery, heaps of fruits and vegetables, open-air markets, crowded cafes, and swarms of semi-employed men and youths. Piles of bricks lined the sidewalks as residents repaired their houses.

But an aura of intimidation and hostility hung over the Jolan. When a journalist asked if he could take a few pictures, the Marines and Iraqi soldiers readily complied—by blocking off traffic so the journalist wouldn’t be shot.

As the grieving Kurdish family left the city the next morning, MacVarish decided to go into the heart of the Jolan. It was a gesture to show that the murder had not intimidated the Iraqi soldiers. Capt. Khodar Juwad, commanding the 3rd Company in the 2nd Battalion, eagerly agreed. His soldiers would go to the site of the worst torture house in the city, near Jolan Park where the insurgents had their headquarters until they were pushed out of the city last November. Juwad picked out the house using a detailed photomap. Perhaps a terrorist gang in the neighborhood, if surprised by the sudden appearance of soldiers, would shoot instead of hiding among the residents on the streets. While MacVarish called Marine Battalion 1/6 to have a Quick Reaction Force standing by, Juwad chose a route in and out of the park that required no backing up or going down the same street twice.

In four vehicles, the Iraqi platoon raced down a labyrinth of back streets and screeched to a stop in front of a house that had a pronounced cement balustrade. A frightened man quickly opened the iron door in the courtyard wall while passers-by disappeared into their houses. No, the man said, he did not own the house. It was empty, so he had moved in. The Iraqi soldiers walked to the rear, where, they believed, a dank, dirt corridor had once led to cells smeared with blood and feces. Instead of a dirt floor and molding walls, there was clean parquet and white-washed walls. You built over the cells, the soldiers said. No, no, the man exclaimed in delighted relief, you are looking for the torture house. That was next door, not here. Same house as this, but it’s gone.

To avoid questions about ownership of the house, he rushed out, banged on the courtyard door of a nearby house, and scooted away. Across the street, workmen were placing scaffolding on a new brick house that would not look out of place in a middle-class neighborhood in Palm Springs. A large man in a white dishdasha opened the door and Cpl. Ahmed Brahin, 20, confronted him.

Brahin, a Shiite, had joined the Iraqi army when he was 13. Somehow, in April of 2003, he had latched onto a Marine battalion on its way to Baghdad. A born linguist, he had remained with Marine units for the next 30 months and spoke the Marine patois with the ease of a grizzled gunnery sergeant. Brahin hit the man in the dishdasha with a barrage of fast questions, shaking his head at each answer.

“He’s giving me the usual Fallujah jive,” Brahin said. “His mother owns the property across the street. Used to be a good house, until the Marines destroyed it. So, they’re rebuilding it from scratch, and the Marines won’t give them any dough. Says it’s bull that it used to be torture house. This is a fine neighborhood. The Marines are the problem.”

Showed a computer picture of the house standing after the battle, the man shrugged. Well, maybe the Marines didn’t destroy it entirely. Anyway, it’s gone now, and it was never used for torture. The next picture showed a cell inside the house. Yes, the man said, his brother was insane, apt to kill people. So, he locked him up to protect the neighbors. He was shown a picture of a second cell. Yes—he had locked up two homicidally inclined brothers. He himself had fled when the fighting started and left his brothers behind. The Marines came and shot them. Shown a picture of a dead man in the cell, he said yes, that was his brother. But he wasn’t shot. His legs were cut off. Who did that? The man shrugged.

Schoolgirls hurry by the site of a torture house in Jolan, Fallujah. Click image to expand.
Schoolgirls hurry by the site of a torture house in Jolan, Fallujah

“Time to move,” Brahin said. “This guy’s lied to us long enough. If we question him any longer, the irahibeen will kill him on general principle.”

Brahin walked down the street as if looking for another address.

“They’re all the same,” he said. “They know who controls the Jolan. Besides, they hate the Iraqi soldiers as much the Marines. We’re Shiites, outsiders. I feel it every day in their eyes. Anyone tells us anything, he’ll die. [The insurgents] can’t stand up to us in a fight, though.”

As the patrol walked away, three young schoolgirls passed by the site of the torture house. They clung together and looked sideways at the spot.