First Lieutenant Nathaniel Chittick 01C served his first tour of Iraq in 2003 as a platoon commander for 2nd Platoon, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. During his second tour, he served as executive officer for Echo Company.
After returning to Camp Pendleton, he became commanding officer for Echo Company shortly before successfully completing his three-and-a-half-year obligation as a U.S. Marine Officer on July 1, 2004.
Chittick is currently living in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is project manager for Youthbuild Louisville. He is writing a book about his experiences in Iraq.
These events occurred when Chittick was platoon commander. The initial paragraph (which is in italics) is an entry from his diary, and the rest is his subsequent recollection of what happened. “My battalion was tasked with conducting security and stability operations in the southern city of As Samawah, which lies midway between Basrah and Nasiriyah. I was chosen to be the civil affairs project officer for my company, partly because I had a political science degree from Emory. This is a story about my first two weeks in this role and how I was able to establish a joint patrolling effort involving my Marines and the local Iraqi police.”
Policing the Police
22 May :
There was good news today from Captain Sami; for the first time since the invasion, there were no crimes reported last night. My interpreter, Mohammed, told me it was the first time in months that he had slept through the night. He hadn’t heard a single gunshot. These are good signs. Talk in the street is positive. I know it’s only been a couple of days, but our new joint patrolling techniques seem to be doing the trick.
I had assumed the duties of civil affairs officer for Golf Company a week earlier when Lieutenant McDowell returned to the States for a family emergency. I was excited about the position, since I had been trying to get involved for weeks. We had been in the city of As Samawah for nearly a month now, and I couldn’t understand why we weren’t doing more patrols in conjunction with the Iraqi police.
My platoon was responsible for conducting multiple squad-sized patrols every three days. The rotation was fairly easy, but it was frustrating because the patrols seemed so pointless. We couldn’t talk to anyone; there weren’t enough interpreters to take one out on every patrol. Even if we could have communicated with the people in the street, we didn’t have anything to say. We didn’t have any goals or initiatives. We were just supposed to provide a presence on the street, and that’s what we did.
You couldn’t miss us; imagine ten or fifteen fully armed Marines walking through the streets surrounded by three hundred screaming children. As they swarmed around us, they called out “Mista, mista, chocolate!” Don’t get me wrong, it was great fun handing out candy to all the kids, but how was handing out candy getting us any closer to going home?
My Marines were ready for any task. We wanted to clean up the streets. We wanted to help re-build the city. We wanted to take down criminals and terrorists. Instead, day after day, we walked the streets providing presence and losing our edge.
When Lieutenant McDowell departed, I was the natural replacement for the role of civil affairs officer: I had studied political science in college, I had been trained as a military policeman in the reserves, and I had grown up listening to my father talk about international relations my whole life. I don’t think that resume would have helped much if I was applying for the position in an American city, but since no one else was interested, I was the perfect candidate. That being said, I still felt a little uneasy about taking on these extra duties. Lieutenant McDowell had left before we had a chance to talk about what he had been doing. All I knew was that he was meeting with the police every few days. I would use the police station as my starting point.
On the morning of May 20 th , I suited up to meet Captain Sami for the first time. I strapped on my flak jacket and helmet, picked up my rifle, and headed for the trucks. It was a five-minute ride to the center of the city. It was a beautiful, cool Iraqi summer morning, not even 90 degrees yet. Our convoy stopped at the courthouse where Mohammed was waiting for us. As always, he was wearing a short-sleeved, button-down shirt with khaki pants and carrying his lunch in a small plastic bag. Mohammed wasn’t the type of guy you would expect to see riding around in a Hummer full of guns. He was a soft-spoken English teacher, optimistic about the future but scared as hell at the same time.
After another short ride to the police station, we parked the Hummers out front and were instantly swarmed by children seeking candy, smiles, and the chance to show off their English skills.
“Mista, mista, Bush good, Saddam donkey,” one would say. We would smile or laugh. “Mista, mista, give me dollar.” We had heard it all before. The Marines would put up with it as long as the kids stayed away from the trucks and didn’t try to touch their rifles.
Mohammed and I entered the dingy little police station through the front door. A small holding cell was on the right as we entered. It was empty and I was glad; it looked more like a cage to lock up a pack of dogs. Mohammed led me down the hallway and stopped at an open door where he motioned for me to enter.
Sitting behind the desk was a large man, about thirty-five years old, with a round face and a thick black mustache. His light blue uniform was clean and pressed. He wore three white stars on his shoulder signifying his rank as captain.
In comparison, I must have looked like a complete disaster. Five feet seven on a good day, I had lost about twenty pounds since February and was weighing in at around 130. My uniform was thick with dirt and sweat, and I’m sure I had the smell to go with it. According to protocol, I wasn’t supposed to take off my flak jacket, but I did take off my helmet, revealing a mat of dirt-crusted hair shaved to the skin on the sides.
Captain Sami stood up and walked out from behind his desk. At six feet tall and 250 pounds, he was a large man, especially for an Iraqi. We met in the middle of the room and shook hands. My eye trained in on the pistol he wore on his hip. I was always sizing people up, and I didn’t like my chances if Captain Sami turned out to be a bad guy. I was the only Marine inside the building. Mohammed introduced us, and I realized that my reservations were unnecessary.
I immediately liked Captain Sami. I’m not sure exactly what it was about him, but I felt I could trust him. We spoke for nearly an hour about the types of problems he was having in the city. I took detailed notes and asked a lot of tough questions about the discipline of his police. I had noticed a lack of organization in the police station, and my first impression was that most of the police were lazy and incompetent. Captain Sami agreed with some of what I said but avoided answering some of the questions. It was probably a little embarrassing for him to hear this coming from a kid like me. Nevertheless, I could tell that I was working with someone who understood that there were problems and who wanted to fix them.
By the end of the meeting I had made up my mind that to make any real progress in As Samawah, Captain Sami and I were going to have to do three things. First, we were going to have to create an open line of communication between the police station and Golf Company. Second, Captain Sami was going to have to start keeping records for his police station. This would include things like shift rotations, crimes reported, and arrests made. This would also need to include reports on police officers who weren’t cutting it and the disciplinary actions taken against them. I wanted all these records translated into English so I could keep track of what was going on in the police station on a daily basis. Third, I had to get our squad patrols linked up with the Iraqi police every time we left the base from now on. Captain Sami was excited about this third goal most of all. He said his police would be ready to go any time. I couldn’t believe it. After all these weeks of wondering why we weren’t patrolling with the police, all I had to do was ask.
Before I left the police station, I gave another interpreter, Ibrahim, $10 to buy stationery so that Captain Sami could begin keeping the records. Ibrahim happened to live across the street from the police station, which was convenient. I told him to buy some extra stationery for himself so that he could start translating the records for me.
As soon as I got back to the base, I went to talk to Captain Hammond about integrating our patrols. He was receptive to the idea and asked me to set it up. At that point we were conducting four to six two-hour patrols every day. It would be simple to stop at the police station and pick up a team of Iraqi police at the beginning of each patrol. First Platoon was on patrol duty and still had four patrols scheduled for the day. I talked to Lieutenant Maurer about picking up the police, and told him to try to get Ibrahim to go with the patrol. He said it wouldn’t be a problem.
If we were going to communicate with the police, we would need to work off the same map, figuratively and literally, so I acquired a large aerial photomap of As Samawah. I thought it would be useful for pointing out trouble areas and establishing link up points for patrols. Next, I searched around the battalion command post to find out how hard it would be to get an Iraqi phone line installed. I learned that battalion already had an Iraqi phone line manned by an interpreter twenty-four hours a day, and asked for permission to give the number out to the police. That wasn’t going to be a problem, either.
The next day I was well prepared to meet with Captain Sami. The presents I brought weren’t very expensive, but Captain Sami seemed delighted that I was bringing him anything at all. I guess what I was really bringing him was hope. He was blown away by the map, and brought his lieutenants into the office to show it off. He was happy to have our phone number, and I took down the number for the police station. I told Captain Sami that I was very happy about the joint patrols we had started. He was pleased, as well. He even suggested that on today’s patrols his police should go in front because they were more familiar with the area. What a great idea! Why hadn’t I thought of that?
About halfway through our meeting, I noticed an old man standing outside the office door. I asked Hadi, my third interpreter, what the man was doing. Hadi told me, rather plainly, that the man’s car had been stolen. He knew who took it and where it was. Simple, I thought, Captain Sami is going to call in a squad of police and send them out to get the car back; case solved. There was just one problem. Captain Sami explained that it was in an area of the city where they didn’t like to go. I could hear a touch of fear in his voice and then the translation came: “They have many rifles there.” I was shocked. How can you expect to police a city if you are afraid to go into certain neighborhoods? He pointed to the area on the map. It was less than a few blocks away from the police station. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to show Captain Sami what the Marines could do for him. Luckily my platoon was on patrol duty that day. I arranged to meet Captain Sami and a squad of his police at 1800 that night. Together, we would go to the area and get the car back. My Marines would secure the perimeter while Captain Sami and his police searched for the car.
I didn’t know what to expect. We hadn’t trained with the police at all. Some of the patrols had shown up to the police station to find that there weren’t enough police to go on patrol and man the station at the same time. I wasn’t sure if any police would be at the station when I showed up. Iraqis have a saying, “Insha’ Allah” or “God willing.” Everything was Insha’ Allah. Will you be at the courthouse tomorrow morning? “Insha’ Allah.” Will you have the police ready to go at 1800? “Insha’ Allah.”
In fact, I was the one who showed up a little late. We had a problem with our radio as we were leaving the base, and I wasn’t about to roll out on a mission without solid communications. “Insha’ Allah.” Captain Sami was not at the police station, but he had left one of his lieutenants in charge of the operation. That was just as well. I wouldn’t expect Captain Hammond to lead a squad patrol. Why should I expect Captain Sami to be there?
After a quick huddle around the map with Ibrahim translating the plan, we jumped into the trucks and headed toward the neighborhood. The sun had set, but it was still hot out. It was always hot out. As we swerved through the streets, bands of children raced beside our trucks. I hoped they were excited to see the Iraqi police up front leading the way. It was kind of funny and kind of dangerous. The Iraqi police were all piled into the back of an old white Toyota truck. They were pointing their weapons all over the place, including at each other. One of these guys was even standing up behind the cab trying to imitate the Marine gunners in the turrets of the Hummers. I crossed my fingers and said a little prayer to myself. I sure didn’t want to start this mission off with a policeman shooting himself in the foot, or worse.
We stopped short of the house and proceeded on foot. Corporal Lawler handled the security plan for the perimeter while the police began to search the suspect’s house. The situation started to get out of hand. As soon as the police entered the house, there was commotion. Nearly a hundred Iraqis were gathered around the area trying to see what was going on. I didn’t like what I was seeing because we didn’t have enough Marines on scene to deal with this type of situation. You don’t need a lot of Marines to win a fire fight, but I didn’t want to have to respond with that kind of force. Being outnumbered 10 to 1 however, if these people started to riot, we wouldn’t have much choice.
I walked up to the house and saw what the problem was. The police were arresting two young men. This was driving everyone insane. I asked Ibrahim to tell me what the men were being arrested for. He said that they were bad men who had lots of weapons and stole things. My instincts told me I should dig a little deeper. I asked him if the police had found anything in the house. He said he didn’t know. I was starting to get the picture. I had the police bring the two suspects back inside the house.
Again I asked if anything illegal had been found on the premises. No, nothing was found, but the police assured me that these were bad men. I had no doubt that they probably were bad guys, but that’s just not the way to do business. I had Ibrahim translate for me as we released the men. I explained to the men that there had been a mistake--someone had identified them as arms dealers and so I hoped they could understand why we had searched their home. I apologized for the confusion and offered to pay for anything the police may have broken during the search. The men said it was no problem. I paused for a second and changed my tone as I looked the older of the two men straight in the eyes. I promised him that if they were dealing arms, it was only a matter of time before they were caught. I suggested that they should go to the police station the next day on their own in order to sort out all the confusion. Then we left without incident.
When we returned to the police station the police looked defeated. I pulled the squad into Captain Sami’s office and gave them a little pep talk. I walked them through all the good points of the operation. I talked about our linkup at the police station and quick movement to the objective. I praised the police on how quickly they had identified the suspects’ house and completed their search. I drew on a white board to demonstrate how Corporal Lawler had used two man teams to surround the house. It was a well-executed mission. There was no need to hold our heads low. We demonstrated three important things to the people of As Samawah: first, the police and the Marines were working together; second, there was no area that the police were afraid to enter; and third, the police were fair and could be trusted. After all, Saddam was gone, and with him, the days when the police might snatch you out of your bed in the middle of the night.
fter the speech, the police seemed to pick their heads up. I had even cheered myself up a little. At the same time, I started to realize how much work lay ahead of us. It wasn’t going to be as simple as just writing up a democratic constitution for Iraq and electing a government. Before that would ever work, we were going to have to change the way the Iraqis thought about things like community and civic duty. We were going to have to set the example and show them how to live together in a free society.
The concept was simple, but it wasn’t going to be easy. We would have to do more than win fire fights. We would certainly have to do more than show up on the streets and pass out candy. That would only keep us popular for so long. We needed to help organize community programs and sponsor small businesses. We needed to think way outside the box if we were going to succeed.
I began to wonder if we were really willing to take up these challenges. Most infantry officers I talked to said our job was to provide security--end of story. They said someone else would come in and solve the whole political mess. They were never asked to take part in the civil affairs process; it was only by chance that I had gotten involved. But how could it ever work without our getting involved? Where were these people who would swoop in and fix everything? There was nothing amazing about what I had accomplished over the last couple of days. I just had a different perspective on the situation. That’s why it seemed so simple to me.
Golf Company started working exclusively with the Iraqi police. The police gained confidence. They started taking back the streets they had been so afraid to enter only a few days before. The Marines were on scene to make sure things didn’t get out of hand and to keep the police honest. We were learning, too. We Marines were learning that the Iraqis knew a lot more about policing than we thought. For all their bad habits, they were much better than we were at spotting suspicious activity. Based on subtle cultural hints, they would stop people, search them, and question them about what they were doing.
I think the criminals understood this, too. They knew they could walk right past a Marine patrol without being spotted. They knew they could intimidate the Iraqi police if the Marines weren’t around. But together, we were a force to be reckoned with. For almost a month we had wasted our time patrolling by ourselves while the Iraqis sat back and watched. Now, working together, there was hope.