Iraq Journal: The Liberation of Karmah, Part II

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

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The small city of Karmah sits between Fallujah and Baghdad, two Iraqi cities that have suffered more insurgent and terrorist violence than most. Karmah, however, was more hard-hit than either. It’s right on the bleeding edge of Anbar Province where the outskirts of Baghdad taper away. Unlike Fallujah, it has no hard perimeter to defend, nor was it considered a top priority for counterinsurgency operations. Surge forces in Baghdad drove Al Qaeda in Iraq members out of the capital’s neighborhoods and straight into Karmah during most of 2007.

Al Qaeda in Iraq did in Karmah what they have done everywhere else – intimidated and murdered civilians into submission. They decapitated police officers and placed severed heads all over the city. They destroyed the homes of anyone who opposed them. The message was clear: This is what will happen to you if you work with the Americans.

The story in Karmah should be familiar by now. Iraqis said no. We will work with the Americans and drive you out of our country. So many Stateside Americans still wonder aloud why mainstream Muslims refuse to stand up to terrorists, so apparently the story in Karmah – which is hardly unique to Karmah – isn’t familiar enough.

I joined Lieutenant Jasey Alleman on a foot patrol in the city at dawn when the air was still cold and the sun cast long shadows.

Fewer Iraqis were out on the street. Many were still sleeping or cooking breakfast at home.

Most stores were open, though, and the lieutenant ducked into a hardware store and bought several cans of blue spray paint. I didn't ask what they were for because I assumed I'd find out.

Even this city, of all cities, has gone quiet. Saturation patrolling by Marines who live embedded in the community’s neighborhoods stanched the terrorist outflow from Baghdad and purged the local insurgency’s remnants. The main market area downtown was recently re-opened to much ceremony and fanfare. Marine veterans who had served in Karmah before can hardly believe their own eyes – a year ago Karmah was thought to be as dark as Mordor.

Our first official stop of the morning was at a grade school. Children rushed to the windows to smile and wave as we walked up the steps.

A young boy came running out the front door with tears in his eyes and a bruise on his eyebrow. A soft-faced teacher or administrator in his forties stepped outside to make sure the kid didn't run off too far. “He was in a fight,” he said and opened his palms.

Lieutenant Alleman called out to his unit's medic. “See if you can clean this kid up,” he said. Our medic cleaned the boy's wound and gently applied a band-aid.

I stepped inside the school yard. Hundreds of children saw me and the Marines, and the whole place erupted in screams of excitement. It was as if Britney Spears or the guy from Coldplay had shown up. The volume was just extraordinary and I took a few steps back in surprise.

Wildly screaming children jockeyed for position in front of my camera. After a few minutes of pandemonium, teachers coaxed most of the kids into classrooms and left a few behind to pick up the trash and sweep the sidewalk around the courtyard.

“Are they picking up the trash to impress us?” I said to Lieutenant Alleman. It's hard to say why, exactly, but that's what it looked like.

“Yeah, pretty much,” he said. “We can get them to do it, but what we really need to do is get them to do it when we aren't here.”

The schools are gender segregated by days of the week. One day each school is for boys, and the next day the same school is for girls.

A few months ago the schools were opened again for the first time in years. Much hay was made about girls being allowed to return to school in Afghanistan after the Taliban regime was demolished. Hardly any Americans know that in the rougher cities of Iraq, neither girls nor boys could go to school for years because local rule by Al Qaeda was so oppressive and violent.

“People just stared at us as recently as August,” Lieutenant Alleman said. “They wouldn't, or couldn't, engage us. But when we started painting buildings and stuff like that people realized we were trying to help. None of the schools were open when we got here [last summer]. We helped them open up five. It's hard to hate someone who gives your kid candy and helps him get to school.”

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