Iraq Journal: The Liberation of Karmah, Part I

Michael J. Totten is an independent journalist reporting on the war in Iraq. Here is a portion of his latest journal entry provided exclusively for FOXNews.com.

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Just beyond the outskirts of Fallujah lies the terror-wracked city of Karmah. While you may not have heard of this small city of 35,000 people, American soldiers and Marines who served in Anbar Province know it as a terrifying place of oppression, death, and destruction. “It was much worse than Fallujah” said more than a dozen Marines who were themselves based in Fallujah.

“Karmah was so important to the insurgency because we've got Baghdad right there,” Lieutenant Andrew Macak told me. “This is part of the periphery of Baghdad. At the same time, it is part of the periphery of Fallujah.”

Lieutenant Macak is not a veteran of Karmah, but Sergeant Jason Howell is. He was deployed in the city from March through October in 2006. “People weren't out in the streets,” he said. “They were very reserved. They were afraid to talk to us. They had the feeling that, especially in the smaller towns, they were constantly being watched. They were in real jeopardy if they interacted with coalition forces and, especially, the Iraqi Police.”

Lieutenant Macak arrived in Karmah in the middle of July 2007 when the city was still a war zone. “It was moving in the right direction, but it was still active,” he said. “2/5 [Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment], who we relieved, was part of the surge effort. Karmah was still a very dangerous place. The lollipop over here was a big deal.”

“You mean the traffic circle?” I said. The Marines refer to a large traffic circle down the street from the police station at the entrance to the market as the “lollipop.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was basically IED Alley. The whole road out here in front of the station was just covered in IEDs. No one even went down the roads leading to the north of here. It was an insurgent stronghold. Before 2/5 came in there weren't many patrols. They didn't do a whole lot. The Iraqi Police didn't have any confidence. Their numbers weren't big and there wasn't a whole lot of organization. 2/5 came in and started patrolling, started doing what Marines do. They identified local leaders and started engaging them. Sheikh Mishan came back at about the same time from Syria.”

Sheikh Mishan Abbas, like many other sheikhs in Anbar Province, fled to Syria shortly after the U.S. invaded. He heads up the Jamaeli tribe, the largest in the area.

“Did he switch sides?” I said.

“Nah,” Lieutenant Macak said. “He's never switched sides. You mean did he work for the enemy? No, he never did that. He took off to Syria because he didn't want to get killed and he didn't want to be pressured into supporting Al Qaeda. He's basically the 'sheikh of sheikhs.' He's been known as the sheikh of sheikhs since the British were here in the 1920s.”

Fallujah was a minefield of IEDs, but Karmah was even worse.

“They hit a lot of IEDs out there,” he said. “One of the route clearance teams was reacting to one and got hit by a secondary. It took their Cougar, spun it over, and threw it so high in the air it flipped over the power lines before coming back down. Fortunately the men weren't hurt. The vehicle remained intact. The armor protected the Marines inside like it was supposed to. This was in the first week of September.”

Corporal Caleb Hayes wanted to know who I was. He wasn't expecting to see a journalist. Reporters hardly ever visit Karmah, which is the reason you probably have never heard of it.

“I personally was hit with seven IEDs in the traffic circle alone,” he said. “It didn’t start quieting down until September.”

“Why did it take longer in Karmah than in the rest of the province?” I said.

“It was easier in Fallujah because that city has a hard perimeter,” he said. “There is no definite edge to defend in Karmah. Insurgents just kept coming in. They were pushed into Karmah by surge forces in Baghdad. We always knew we would be shot at when we rolled out of the station in Karmah.”

AnbarProvince– which also includes the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, and Haditha – is the heartland of Sunni Iraq. These places were the backbone of the Baath Party during the regime of Saddam Hussein. I was surprised, then, to hear so little about Baathists. What happened? Are they just gone?

“Here?” Lieutenant Macak said. “The primary threat was Al Qaeda. After the initial invasion Karmah wasn't exactly an afterthought, but it isn't the primary population center. The Marines went in and occupied Fallujah, and progressively moved out from that core.”

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