Shooting With The Enemy

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HANDOVER: A U.S. Marine distributes weapons to new Iraqi army recruits before a foot patrol near insurgent controlled Fallujah

Captain Abdel Hadi was driving home from a long day's work as an officer in Iraq's new security force when gunmen pulled him over. Two white Oldsmobiles screeched around his Nissan pickup, and four men armed with AK-47 machine guns grabbed Hadi, blindfolded him and stuffed him into the trunk of a car. They drove him to a safe house in Fallujah, where, for five days in early August, he was tortured and interrogated by some of the insurgents who control the town. His captors, he says, beat his feet and legs with a pipe until he could no longer feel them, thrashed his back and tied his genitals before forcing him to drink three bottles of water. At one point, Hadi says, he heard a knife being sharpened next to his ear. His interrogator threatened to chop off his head unless he confessed to collecting information for the U.S. forces. Hadi refused.

Fortunately for him, a cousin had witnessed the abduction and recognized one of Hadi's kidnappers. The next day, armed tribesmen surrounded the kidnapper's home and threatened to kill all his family members unless Hadi was released within four days. On the fifth day, at sunset, Hadi was set free. He could barely walk, but he was alive. "This is a dirty way to treat people," says Hadi of his captors. "They don't have any ethics. They are criminals."

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In Fallujah right now, the criminals are in control. Since April, when U.S. Marines pulled back from a planned assault to seize the city, which lies 35 miles west of Baghdad, Fallujah has fallen under the sway of an assortment of hard-line insurgents — including, the U.S. believes, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's chief operative in Iraq. The U.S. has tried to find Iraqis willing to root out the militants who are imposing Taliban-style rule in the city, bringing miscreants before a strict Islamic court. The Fallujah Brigade, a group of former Baathist officers whom the Marines armed and outfitted after the April standoff, has collapsed. Marine commanders say the unit is aiding the same rebels it was formed to fight. As a result, the city has become the country's most conspicuous "no go" zone for U.S. troops. American commanders can do little more than target the insurgent strongholds with air strikes, which tend also to kill civilians.

The U.S.'s best hope now is to train and deploy a new Iraqi army with enough firepower to regain control of rebel-held areas. The U.S. says some 145,000 Iraqi soldiers will be fully trained and battle ready by year's end. But in places like Fallujah, the goal of creating a viable indigenous army is a long way off. Hundreds of Iraqi recruits have deserted the ranks for fear of being killed by anti-U.S. militants. Others have shown reluctance to fight their countrymen. But U.S. commanders don't have many other options. "Until we have trained soldiers," says Major Kevin Collins, who runs India Base, a dusty boot camp on the outskirts of Fallujah, "the situation is not going to get much better."

One of the most vexing challenges for the Marines at India Base is figuring out whether the soldiers they are training are really on their side. All Iraqis who sign up for the army go through a vetting process, says Collins, but it isn't airtight. U.S. officers believe enemy fighters are sneaking recruits into U.S.-run training camps. The Marines have received reports from scouts saying insurgents wearing U.S.-issued desert camouflage have attacked American positions. "We joke that after shooting at the range here, the shooting is better at TCP-1," Collins says, referring to a U.S. checkpoint at the entrance to Fallujah. The notion that the Marines are unwittingly training enemy fighters has become the source of dark barracks humor. Some drill sergeants joke about making T shirts that read INDIA BASE: AMERICA'S ONLY OFFICIALLY SANCTIONED TERRORIST TRAINING CAMP.

Even if they can be found, faithful Iraqi recruits are proving difficult to retain. Iraqi commanders working alongside the American forces walk a dangerous line, trying to convince their neighbors they are patriots, not traitors. Painted on a concrete blast wall outside Marine headquarters at Camp Fallujah is a portrait of Lieut. Colonel Suleiman Hamad al-Marawi, a former commander of the Fallujah-based 506th Battalion of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC). Last month al-Marawi was kidnapped with another Iraqi lieutenant colonel when insurgents overran two Iraqi army positions. Six days later, his body was found, still in uniform, dumped in a pile of garbage next to a soccer field. Soon after, the commander of a sister battalion was shown in a pro-resistance video called Confession of an ICDC Officer, sold in Fallujah. In the propaganda movie, obtained by TIME, the captive, Lieut. Colonel Khudeiyr Muslim Hussein, claimed that al-Marawi was killed because he had stopped cooperating with the mujahedin, or holy warriors. "Lately we noticed," said a visibly shaken Hussein, "he didn't have the will to work with the mujahedin." Marine commanders haven't heard from Hussein since.

Despite the risks, the Marines are determined to find Iraqis who are up to the job. About 2,000 Iraqis have been trained at India Base. But after the mujahedin overran two Iraqi battalions in early August, Collins was forced to piece together a new force from scratch. The recruits include the few remaining soldiers as well as deserters who are being invited back. (To emphasize the new start, the Americans have renamed the ICDC in Fallujah the Iraqi National Guard.) But it isn't easy bringing the Iraqis back. Although many are attracted by the money, and in some cases want to do their part to help the new government, they don't want to be seen as traitors. "These guys are facing a choice now," says Collins. "A hard choice."

But there are still some willing to make that choice. Even after his kidnapping, Abdel Hadi continues to work every day at India Base. His family begs him to stay home and grow okra, lemons and potatoes on their farm, but Hadi loves being a soldier. "I won't give up my job because of a little terrorist," he says in his office as his soldiers march outside in the blazing sun. Three weeks after Hadi was tortured, his feet are still too swollen to fit into shoes, so he wears a pair of worn house slippers as he commands his men. Thick crimson scars on his legs are a constant reminder of the risk he takes every day, but Hadi is not deterred. "It is my country," he says. Nonetheless, Hadi is not taking any chances. These days, when he drives out of the gates of India Base, his brothers drive alongside him, providing him cover all the way home.