The Final Option
- Published: Thursday, 31 May 2007 00:00
Hit, Anbar Province, Iraq
The city of Hit (pronounced “heat”) is a spot of green in the desert on the western bank of the Euphrates. The temperature is steadily rising here as the weeks melt into the mirage of summer; the haze shimmering at about 115°F now. The air was blowing hot and dry through the city Tuesday morning 29 May, when I accompanied LTC Doug Crissman for another day of meetings with local leaders in Hit and surrounding towns in Anbar Province. Crissman and the soldiers of Task Force 2-7 Infantry under his command have been welcomed in the area of Hit for about the last one hundred days. Prior to February, Hit was one of the hottest little battlegrounds of the war, with almost daily gun battles crackling through the air, mortars exploding on the bases, and bombs cratering the roads.
But none of that noise punctuated a visit last Saturday, when LTC Crissman and I walked through the downtown portion of the city. Our several-mile stroll through the market—a veritable shopping mall for the area—was filled with men, women, and children of all ages, including one rotund boy furiously slurping an ice cream before it could drip away.
Hit could have swallowed us whole that day. Although there were vehicles nearby in radio contact, we had only two soldiers as guards during our stroll. But the people mostly just waved and smiled, or wanted to talk with Crissman, who stopped now and then to engage in conversations, all while the steam building inside the pressure cookers of our helmets soaked the pads in sweat.
Many people in Hit directly attribute the resurrection of this city in large part to the courage of Iraqi Police General Ibrahim Hamid Jaza (General Hamid), who took an aggressive stand against the Al Qaeda (AQI) terrorists who had brazenly made Anbar province a home base and slaughter pad with their marketplace car bombs, beheadings, and reputation for hiding bombs intended to kill parents in the corpses of dead children they’d gutted.
Over time, AQI provided ample demonstrations of their ruthless and reckless abuses of power over civilians, shooting people for using the Internet, or watching television, or other “moral transgressions” such as smoking in public. AQI’s claim of fundamentalist piety proved to be a thin veneer that was quickly eroded by blatant drug, alcohol and prostitute use. The people of Anbar rejected AQI, but AQI was still strong and well-armed, so rejection was only a first step.
AQI operatives are not amenable to change, so there was killing to be done. General Hamid was one of the brave souls who took an early stand and went for their throats. In doing so, he demonstrated that the terrorists were also vulnerable. Some soldiers in the Task Force 2-7 began to jokingly refer to the general as “Bufford Pusser” because Hamid literally carried a big stick. But AQI wasn’t laughing; they beheaded Hamid’s son on a soccer field in the center of Hit in 2005.
About a year ago coalition forces selected Hamid to be the District Chief of Police, confirming his status as a true hero to many Americans and Iraqis. Accordingly, recent signs suggesting that Hamid might have begun flying too close to the sun were a hard and grim reality for officers in both governments, as the evidence of his corruption began to accumulate like so much wax melted off strong wings. Hamid had earned his reputation for being ferocious against terrorists, which might suffice to explain the stunning impact when, without warning or notice, LTC Crissman arrested and detained the general Tuesday afternoon.
Context is critical to understanding the circumstances, as well as for explaining why news of his arrest was absorbed with shock, but without incident. The substrate of the operating context is philosophical and hearkens back the recent Values Letter penned by Commanding General David Petraeus. It reduces to one idea: Thou Shalt Not Abuse People. In democracies, the people always have the power to reject abuses of power. And the Iraqi people in the Anbar province have exercised their power to reject leaders, a rejection that happened to us here not so long ago.
In fact, once upon a recent time, the people of Anbar saw what they interpreted as abuses of power from our side, and rejected American leadership. When in April 2004, the events in Fallujah and Abu Ghraib unfolded just a short drive from Hit, people here responded with more than just a passive rejection of Americans; they also welcomed AQI and other Coalition enemies.
For several days leading up to 29 May, I accompanied Crissman as he circulated throughout the 4,000-square kilometer piece of Iraq under his watch, meeting with various sheiks, imams, city council members, mayors, and Iraqi policemen throughout the area. Invariably, concerns about General Hamid’s conduct were frequent topics of discussion. Some local officials who had once regarded Hamid as a hero were now beginning to fear him. Allegations claimed he was committing murders (extra-judicial killings), releasing some detainees for money, abusing other detainees, making deals with various insurgent groups (to include selling them weapons and ammunition), and condoning prostitution in Hit. (It is rumored that the prostitutes had provided critical intelligence on their AQI johns.) Our side believed many of the charges, because there was growing evidence that General Hamid was engaging in criminal activity that could unravel progress towards stability here that can only be described as astounding.
Despite that Iraqi and American officials understood Hamid certainly was part of the reason for recent successes in Hit, consensus was building that Hamid was out of control. When someone floated the idea to give Hamid an early retirement, complete with a medal and a ceremony, call him a hero and sadly say goodbye to a man who, with an adjustment of values, could remain an ally in the fight, someone else countered that Hamid was too smart, too proud and too dangerous to fall for that. Hamid is an energetic man with a taste for power. Given an out, Hamid might just opt to become a full-fledged problem. The last thing Anbar Province needs is another power broker working outside the system, and especially not one with Hamid’s intelligence, cunning and contacts.
Local Iraqi officials looked to the Coalition—specifically to LTC Doug Crissman—to solve the problem. I saw them asking, which put the Coalition in a tender bind. The people of Anbar risked reaching out during these meetings, expressing a concern and sharing intelligence to support it, all while clearly expecting Americans to help solve the problem.
Tribal politics may also have been a factor: Hamid is part of the community, if the Americans took him out, that would buy cover for tribal leaders. Or maybe they honestly just needed someone with a bigger stick than Hamid’s. After all, he had helped crush AQI, and they are tough enemies. Whatever turns out to be the underlying cause, Crissman was mindful that Iraqis have their own time clocks, and a limited store of patience for Americans, who were being handed an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in action.
The people at these meetings knew that the Coalition had operated hand-in-hand with General Hamid. Iraqis here would likely interpret our continued tolerance of the situation as a sign that we were no better than the general. The problem was further complicated by the simple fact that most people on both the American and Iraqi sides actually liked Hamid . . . when he was behaving.
But Iraqi officials were clear. They wanted Hamid gone. And they wanted us to arrest him. Anbar is not one of the provinces that has been turned over to PIC control, so the task would properly fall to the Coalition. But that fact does not make the procedure any simpler. More problematic, arresting Hamid would create another vacuum. Experience keeps showing us that if we leave vacuums to chance, fortune tends to rush despots to fill voids.
A secret mission called Operation Police Call was planned. Hamid was to be arrested. Senior Coalition and Iraqi leadership including Prime Minister Maliki were to be apprised of the arrest if it was ordered. Yet events would so conspire on Tuesday that LTC Crissman would initiate the capture himself.
On the morning of 29 May, we began another long day of visiting police stations and other facilities. Every meeting began with the official agenda: there are 576 police hiring slots to fill, and LTC Crissman had been making great effort to distribute the hiring slots over various tribes and geographical boundaries so that everyone became stakeholders in the resulting security program. Everyone gets something, everyone is represented and responsible, and no tribe or town is left behind. The Abu Nimr tribe, the dominant tribe in the area, was trying to grab too many slots. And so during one meeting with sheiks and police commanders, while perhaps a hundred potential recruits were waiting outside for screening, tribal sheiks and police chiefs were haggling over details with Crissman. Crissman was diplomatically laying down the ground rules—yet again—that would assure that the Abu Nimr tribe would not get the massive proportion of slots it was intent upon claiming. I watched him draw two pie charts on a piece of paper to illustrate (through his interpreter) how a particular police unit needed to be both geographically and tribally divided in order to be truly representative of the population.
There was no plan whatsoever to arrest General Hamid that day. But events were unfolding, and the proto-neural communication network that our forces and the Iraqis have been establishing around the area was starting to work. Information was flowing about the heartbeat of the city of Hit, and the area, into the JCC (Joint Coordination Center, where our people have a headquarters with Iraqi police). And that information would force LTC Crissman’s hand because intelligence strongly indicated that Iraqi citizens were going to be killed if action wasn’t taken immediately.
I waded into the crowd of men and came into another group of our soldiers and asked what was happening. Nobody exactly knew, but I could see some of our guys trying to isolate the troublemakers. One of Crissman’s men took away a man who looked fit to be tied. The soldier took the screaming man behind a humvee and gave him an ice-cold water from the cooler, told him to calm down, which worked actually, until another man carrying a gun started screaming again.
One of Crissman’s young soldiers spontaneously confronted that man and told him in colorful terms that if he didn’t back off (the man was brandishing a machine gun) that he was going to get handcuffed. The issue prompting the angry mob scene was the shortage of hiring orders, which translates to a shortage of paychecks. The situation was tense and could have become a firefight, but I did not truly sense imminent bloodshed or I would have stayed inside. By now, Iraqi police commanders had waded into the crowd and begun calming things down, so we headed back inside to our meeting.
On the way in, I realized one of Crissman’s soldiers had been shadowing me, watching my back, when he made eye contact with another soldier and said, “You got him now? I need to get back out there.” “I got him.” Our soldiers take good care of writers and always keep watch during situations.
About 90 minutes later, we were heading back up the road to another planned, but unscheduled engagement. While we had been in meetings, an Iraqi policeman named Major Walid had gone to General Hamid’s office to investigate an allegation that Hamid had accepted a bribe not to detain a known insurgent. Hamid was believed by the Coalition and the Iraqis to be harboring Zayid Yusef Jarwan, a terrorist who operates in Ramadi, and allegations that Hamid might have been involved in releasing Jarwan for cash surfaced.
So at about 1100 local time, Major Walid, a newly-appointed Iraqi Police Investigator, had been summoned to Hamid’s office because he had been asking tough questions as he investigated the allegations. Crissman would tell me that, “Based on no less than five heart-to-heart discussions, Hamid has known he has been on thin ice with both Coalition Forces and the Iraqi population he serves. Reports indicate Hamid physically beat Major Walid in his office and essentially told him to cease his investigation.”
By about noon, the JCC in Hit was getting reports that fliers were being distributed in Hit complaining that Hamid was selling insurgents back to the insurgency. The fliers called on Coalition Forces to do something. Other fliers, believed to be the products of Hamid, were showing up saying the allegations were false.
Around 1300, two members of the Hit City Council arrived at the JCC demanding that the Coalition do something. If not, they feared that the people of Hit would take care of it. The people were saying clearly that they did not want to attack the police general, but enough was enough. A mob intent on lynching Hamid would surely confront an armed contingent of his supporters, and American forces would be involved in the crossfire. Nobody needed a return to that, which would only undermine LTC Crissman’s daily efforts to instill confidence in the people here that there would be a rule of law and that no one—not even the Chief of Police—was above it.
We were already on the road, and had stopped by Hamid’s house, but not to arrest him. LTC Crissman just wanted to show his face and keep in close contact with Hamid, but the general was not home. So the commander told the small patrol to head to Hamid’s office at the Hit District Headquarters. As we drove the humvees north on ROUTE TROUT along the mighty Euphrates, the chain of events described above unfolded for Crissman on his command radio net. At 1315, Crissman got the first indication that this might not be a typical meeting.
Although I’ve been in many Iraqi police stations, this was the first time I can recall entering a station and having the distinct impression that for some reason a firefight might be imminent with the police. There are always concerns that one, or a few, police might do something, but I have always seen the police stations as semi-safe havens, except for how al Qaeda and other groups like to mortar IP stations or level them with truck bombs. Our guys seemed ready to fight the police, something I’d also never before seen.
Importantly, none of this was overt. Nobody was pointing weapons at each other or shouting; nothing like that. Nobody was threatening anyone. Unlike the loud ruckus earlier where men had cocked their weapons, and our guys on the roof were aiming just over my head at machine guns I had not seen (making me think one of our guys was aiming at me), I did not sense that a shootout was forthcoming that time. Yet this time there was no posturing whatsoever, but I could smell the danger as clearly as high voltage.
We were outnumbered—at least two to one, but probably closer to three to one. There were police on the roof with machine guns and AK-47s. Based on other information that I had no knowledge of at the time, LTC Crissman believed that General Hamid was taking his posse out to confront those who were gathering to confront him. Right before our very eyes was evidence in support of that theory: seven truckloads of armed Iraqi police and more armed officers on the rooftops to back them up.
When Crissman met Hamid on the ground outside of their vehicles he calmly exchanged the cultural greetings, hugs, and handshakes and attempted to vent the pressure. He smiled and asked where everyone was going. The general’s response was that they were heading into Hit to have lunch and invited LTC Crissman to join them. Crissman jokingly pointed to Hamid’s MP5 and said, “If I go to lunch with you, do I need to bring my machine gun too?” Crissman’s interpreter translated and there were smiles and laughter, until Crissman asked if he could talk with Hamid inside his office.
Moments earlier, as we rolled up and saw those seven Iraqi Police vehicles filled with men, Crissman had secretly called for a platoon-sized QRF (Quick Reaction Force) backup in Bradley vehicles. Unbeknownst to anyone on the scene at the time except Crissman, the QRF were all running to their machines as we were heading to Hamid’s office. Still, nobody knew what was about to happen, and Crissman himself had only minutes earlier decided it was time to end this thing.
He had also called his executive officer on the radio and told him to call his boss and let him know what he thought was about to happen—Coalition Force detainment of an Iraqi Police Chief—something that normally requires advance notification and permission. So we all sat in Hamid’s office, and I made video.
After about 15 minutes of discussion, we heard the Bradleys rumbling outside. I knew something was going down, but still had no idea what. As I watched Crissman deal with Hamid, I wasn’t getting any clues. Meanwhile, video was still rolling when the Bradley company commander, CPT Dan Fitch, entered the General’s office, and sat in on the meeting for some minutes. I saw Crissman and Fitch use some kind of verbal code. It appeared perfectly natural, but I have spent so much time with our soldiers that I knew he had just passed some kind of message, although I had no idea what it was about. CPT Fitch left the room. Crissman continued discussing seemingly important, but unrelated issues with General Hamid, all while his soldiers from Task Force 2-7 Infantry were outside, quietly separating Iraqi police, disarming and flex-cuffing them. No shots fired. No punches thrown. No bruises.
Inside the office, General Hamid had unslung his submachine gun and propped it up against the wall. I had noticed earlier that General Hamid’s pistol holster was unsnapped, making the weapon virtually effortless to draw. Perhaps it was an accident that caused the holster to unsnap. But for some reason, and I have no idea why, I thought highly unlikely for a military man like Hamid.
When CPT Fitch came back in, he handed Crissman a note. Crissman read it, and then said something out loud about the Sergeant Major not being able to make it to the meeting. The general was fond of the sergeant major, and Crissman had used this as one of his innocuous discussion points moments earlier. I thought, That’s bullshit. What’s going on?
I have written before about how keen Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army officers are to have their photographs taken—particularly with Coalition Forces. Photos of Hamid were plastered over the wall behind his desk. Crissman stood calmly beside Hamid and smiled as I snapped a couple of photos. After the last photo, Crissman deftly grabbed Hamid’s pistol out of his unsnapped holster, smiled, and said, “This hurts me more than it hurts you, but I’m going to need you to come with me, General.”
Hamid seemed confused at first, as if his friend Crissman were just admiring Hamid’s Glock pistol. Hamid just kept smiling as Crissman politely said that Hamid was to be detained.
LTC Crissman, acting solely on his own and with no direct orders from above, saw that a bloodbath was about to be unleashed, and pulled a plan out of the sky. Yes, there had been a plan already afoot, but Crissman “fragged” it early, managing to arrest an entire police station without a shot being fired, and using me as a photo-op to distract a proud, some might say vain, general just long enough to disarm him.
The tensions at the station were contained, but the mission still needed to ensure that conditions remained peaceful in the area. One of the challenges TF 2-7 faces is establishing a rule of law—something enduring that will be simple, effective, and enforceable even after Coalition forces leave. Tuesday’s events created intense challenges, but also provided an otherwise difficult-to-generate opportunity to further the mission. We dropped off the prisoners at a small American base nearby, and LTC Crissman continued to the JCC, where Crissman had asked all the police chiefs in the area to assemble.
Crissman told the assembled chiefs the truth about what happened, and though they looked nervous at first, they seemed on board. Already, there was information of a possible reprisal attack, and so Crissman asked the chiefs to help him detain a couple of men in particular who might deliver reprisals. The police chiefs conferred among themselves and detained the men within hours. Crissman said he had already ordered the reinforcement of all the Iraqi Police stations in the city as well as the only bridge across the Euphrates in the city. He wanted a curfew to be established for three days. He was transparent with the police. He told them exactly what happened and what the next steps entailed. They responded with cooperation.
These meetings were as important as the arrests that apparently derailed a bloodbath. Our own generals and Iraqi officials needed to know about the arrest, but Crissman also realized that his most immediate problem was making sure everyone in Hit—many people admire Hamid and we’ve seen that Iraqis will defend their own—realized that this was not a coup or precipitous action done at the whim of the Coalition, but was requested by the region’s leaders.
People needed to be made aware immediately that Hamid was not being summarily jailed. So instead of stopping the mission and heading back to base after dropping off the fifteen prisoners, Crissman kept meeting with local leaders and reassuring the people.
After the meeting with the police chiefs, we were already 15 minutes late to an emergency meeting of the Hit City Council. At least one of the Council members thought Hamid was still a hero, but most others agreed that what had happened needed to be done and thanked Crissman.
The clock on the wall in the above photo is accurate and shows the time as about 5:36 PM. TF 2-7 had taken General Hamid more than three hours earlier, and the follow-up actions were still in progress. This meeting ground on and on, with armed men all around. Crissman’s men, the security detachment for the mayor, the guards for the City Council building, etc. Again, we Americans were far outnumbered, but not a speck of trouble happened and I sensed practically zero danger, although word came in during the meeting that the governor of Anbar had just canceled his Wednesday trip to Hit (News that a high-ranking American official would write to me the next day).
As the meeting drew to a close, and Crissman indicated he needed to leave, the commander reiterated once more that he had not arrested General Hamid for himself or for Coalition Forces, but instead for the people of Hit. They all nodded in agreement and support and there were a few “Shukrans” (thank-yous) muttered. Crissman then said he needed to go call his boss since he had just arrested an Iraqi general and a few people might be a little upset about that. The council members seemed stunned. I was stunned, having not realized until that moment that Crissman had simply seen the shot and taken it. I said to one of our soldiers, “That was brilliant.”
When Crissman said with full sincerity that he probably was in trouble, and then joked that he might need a place to stay, the council burst into laughter, with members saying he could live in Hit. In a way, he already does.