Seven Days in Baghdad

Smoke still rolled on the horizon and sporadic gunfire could still be heard around the city when I was ordered to report to the Palestine Meridian Hotel for reassignment. We were in the fabled city of Baghdad, and it was a chaotic mess.

Mark 1 Headshot

Sgt. Mark Stainbrook of the Los Angeles Police Department is a major in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves. As a civil affairs officer, he led a team of Marines who tried to rebuild the Iraqi police force in the days immediately following the fall of Baghdad. The following is an excerpt from his journal.

Sunday, 13 April

Smoke still rolled on the horizon and sporadic gunfire could still be heard around the city when I was ordered to report to the Palestine Meridian Hotel for reassignment. For three weeks, the 1st Marine Division had rolled up through the desert from Kuwait and through the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates river, making our way to Baghdad. Now we were in the fabled city, and it was a chaotic mess.

Open combat was still being waged in the streets between coalition forces and remnants of Iraqi regulars and Fedayeen Sadaam guerillas, looters were carting away anything that wasn't bolted down and coming back with bolt cutters for the stuff that was, and fires still burned throughout the sprawling metropolis. Bringing some order to this chaos was now the job of my Marine Corps civil affairs team. We had only been in Baghdad for about 36 hours.

A Civil Military Operations Center had been set up and tasked to coordinate restarting civil infrastructure. Power, water, and sanitation were out in most areas of the city, as were police and fire service. And at the Palestine Hotel, Lt. Col. Pete Zarcone, a Los Angeles Police Department sergeant, told me that my team would be split up, and I was to be the police-fire coordinator in the Marine Corps sector of Baghdad. My mission was to get the Baghdad police up and running in our sector and start joint patrols with Marines as soon as possible.

That was all the direction I would operate under, and the only resources I received were two Marines who were police officers back in the states. Fortunately, the Marines assigned to me were good men. I knew Staff Sgt. Jeremy Stafford and Sgt. Jeff Rand from the LAPD. Both are consummate professionals and good cops, more than capable of operating at levels high above their ranks.

Rand was already hard at work when I arrived. A request had gone out over the radio for senior Iraqis to return to their jobs. They were coming into the Palestine to be interviewed.

Several Iraqi police generals even reported. We screened them with preliminary checks and interviewed them, but I was not comfortable with that alone. We had to make sure that they were not Saddam loyalists. Fortunately, a number of independent Iraqi citizens and some regular patrol officers had also come to the hotel, so we questioned them about our pool of candidates.

While Rand coordinated efforts to bring the generals to the Palestine Hotel for further interviews, I had my first of many unpleasant experiences with representatives from the Iraqi National Congress (INC). They had contacted Lt. Col. Zarcone and demanded a say in the appointment of the interim commanding police general.

After a quick meeting with local INC leader Mohammed Zobeidi and his assistant Jamal Jamir, I agreed to meet them the next morning at the Al Wiyah Club, adjacent to the Palestine, for further discussions. They had invited numerous police officials, and we thought it would be a good place to organize and choose a commanding police general.

The INC placated for now, I moved on to the next pressing problem, finding a base of operations. Most of the police and government facilities were bombed, burned, or looted. Someone suggested the old "Police College," a university for the officers of the department.

When we arrived at the Police College, I had to put a positive spin on things. Looters had trashed the place, smoke was still coming out of several buildings, and sniper rounds could be heard on the edges of the compound. But it did have an administration building, plenty of parking, garage facilities, barracks, storage areas that included an armory (the weapons had been looted), and a kitchen. Most importantly, because I felt that only mass arrests would start making an impact on the looting, it had a jail. We had found our new headquarters.

That evening, the day being far from over, Stafford, Rand, and I made some key decisions. Rather than just try to get a couple Marine/Iraqi patrols going, we would reorganize an Iraqi police command staff and a group of officers that could be the core of a future Baghdad police force.

Unfortunately, we discovered that "Iraqi police" is a somewhat vague term. There had been as many as 14 different agencies and some of them, like Saddam's Secret Police, were not only unwelcome in the new Iraqi police, they were subject to arrest themselves.

We soon discovered, however, that Iraq had some real cops, the "Najda" (helping police) and the "Muhrurr" (traffic police). These agencies were basically patrol and traffic police. They were not too close to the regime, and they worked daily with the local citizens. We decided that these guys would be the foundation for the new Baghdad police.

Monday, 14 April

Stafford, Rand, and I headed for the Al Wiyah on foot, but we were stopped by several bank managers who gave us a report of a robbery in progress at the Central Bank district. After reporting the crime to the Command Center, we were back en route, relieving one overzealous security guard of his AK-47 on the way.

The scene at the Al Wiyah was almost as chaotic as the one on the streets. We walked into the meeting hall and saw that it was packed with hundreds of officers yelling at each other and yelling just to be heard.

It was impossible to work in that environment. I requested the use of a smaller room and finally met with police representatives, including General Zohair, General Gazi, and General Bendar, and with the INC's Zobeidi and Jamir. Rand and Stafford had to physically bar the door and forcefully eject a couple of people, but once we started, things settled down. General Zohair was named commander of the new Iraqi police, subject to my boss's approval.

But it was General Gazi who impressed me as someone who got things done. With jet-black hair, sunken eyes, and the quiet but steely demeanor of a Sopranos' gangster, Gazi cut an intimidating figure. But he wasn't a brute. He was a cop and a good one. When he spoke in the meeting, he talked about winning back the trust of the Iraqi people and needing disciplined officers to restore order. I liked Gazi's background and attitude, and asked General Zohair to make him the operations officer, responsible for patrol, traffic, and the security at the headquarters and fixed posts.

After the meeting broke up, Mohamed Zobeidi, the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Baghdad," came up to me smiling and said that he had put out a radio broadcast for all the Iraqi police officers in the city to show up the next day at the police academy. Hearing that, I realized that we were soon going to be overwhelmed with police applicants. I couldn't have been angrier and I let him know it. This wasn't the last time that Zobeidi and other INC representatives caused trouble.

That night I put together a couple of pages of guidelines, rules of engagement (ROE), and a use-of-force continuum for the new Baghdad PD. It ended up being a combination of the Marine Corps' wartime rules of engagement with elements of a basic police use-of-force continuum, which I hoped would not confuse the Iraqi officers. After all, I had no idea of their level of training or what cultural pitfalls I was flirting with.

The last thing we had to do that night was coordinate the patrols with 7th Marines. Maj. Andrew Petrucci, the 7th Marines' assistant operations officer, helped us out, organizing the combined patrols and moving them out. The patrols would consist of at least two Marine armored Humvees with eight Marines and at least one, but preferably two, police vehicles each with four Iraqi officers. The Marines would be in charge of the actual patrol, but they would work with the Iraqi senior officer.[PAGEBREAK]Tuesday, 15 April

Thanks to Zobeidi, the number of police officers was increasing rapidly. As the interior of the Academy became chaotic, I decided to bar the flimsy gates and try to make the eager officers line up outside in order to sign up for work. This was nearly impossible because a hole had been crashed through a section of the academy's fence.

As officers streamed in on foot and by vehicle, I thought for sure we would have a riot. There were fights and arguments breaking out everywhere. Everyone wanted to be the first to sign up and the first to go back to work. Patience was wearing thin and tempers were flaring.

The Marine security detail on the gate was soon overrun and I had to have everyone pull back to our Humvees. It was that morning that I learned something very important about Iraq. When things were going like this, it was better to sit back and let the Iraqis work things out their own way. I got General Zohair and General Gazi together and told them to restore order and then see me once they had some control of the place.

They did things their way alright. After about three hours, things started to calm down and I do believe General Gazi was about to have an aneurysm. I saw him threaten several officers with a beating from his piton.

All we needed to make the day complete was the press. And, of course, they showed up. Somehow I ended up on camera with Christiane Amanpour from CNN. The day couldn't have been more surreal. She asked me how I was supposed to get a police department running in all this insanity. I remember telling her that I was just glad that the officers wanted to work, which was in part true, but we needed time to organize them.

Everything died down around noon, and I asked the generals to meet me at the Palestine Hotel so we could discuss some issues. Most important of these was the lack of respect being shown to Staff Sgt. Stafford and Sgt. Rand by some of the senior Iraqi police officers.

This is a common problem with foreign military officers working with U.S. military staff and noncommissioned officers. Their sergeants and junior officers are not usually as educated or knowledgeable as ours, nor do they have the initiative to accomplish tasks that are frequently handled by our enlisted Marines. I addressed that issue and the total lack of control in our new police headquarters. And for the first time in my career, military or police, I yelled at generals and the equivalent of police chiefs. I have to admit that felt good.

We had a mostly cooperative relationship with the Iraqi police staff. They were professionals and the disorder occurring in the city was upsetting to them. The vacuum created by the destruction of the Hussein regime gave every criminal, every ex-regime henchman, and everyone with a beef the opportunity to come out and cause trouble. The Iraqi cops didn't like what was happening. And I didn't blame them. I knew that I would take it personally if Los Angeles were being torn apart like this and I couldn't do anything about it.

And we truly wanted to help them help themselves. So we made it clear that we would work together with them. While they were subordinate to our authority, we treated them as equals and not a conquered people. I tried to clarify that we came to free them from Saddam and that they needed to participate in their future. But that's a pretty tough thing for people who have been under the thumb of a tyrant for three decades.

General Gazi surprised us later that day. He assigned us a security team. Our body guards, Maison and Gasson were Iraqi Christian officers who only had one pistol between them. It didn't matter. Gasson looked like he didn't need a pistol or anything else to take care of business. He was thick and squat, and his nose must have been broken at least three times. He was the kind of guy that people take one look at and decide they don't want to cause any trouble.

Maison and Gasson would become our best friends for the next five days. And they helped solve a cultural issue that was plaguing me. Whenever I stopped to talk with anyone for more than 30 seconds, a crowd of officers gathered. Invariably, a quick stop to correct a problem turned into a half-hour discussion with 10 officers spouting an opinion, question, or comment. Gasson took care of that immediately. He made sure that nobody approached me without permission.

Later that day, the new Baghdad PD went into business. We assembled the group of approximately 25 Iraqi officers who would go on the first joint patrol. But before they hit the streets, I called everyone together for roll call and gave them an hour lecture on the rules of engagement, guidelines for dealing with civilians, how to work with Marines, and making arrests. I didn't want any mistakes.

Funny thing. As I spoke to these Iraqi cops, I noticed I got the stare and the head-to-toe visual inspection from most of the officers. Any cop would recognize what they were doing. They were looking to see if I packed the gear. It reminded me that cops must be the same the world over.

And just like cops the world over, they were wary of the "new guys." As we walked out into the parking lot, the place looked like a high school dance, Marines on one side and Iraqis on the other, all looking at each other but no one making the first move. So I decided to make the first move. Maj. Petrucci, Lt. Col. Jassin of the Iraqi police, and I sent out the first patrol and after that everything went smoothly. During the rest of the week, some Marines and Iraqis even requested to go out in the same teams. They were becoming partners. It was a surprising but welcome development.[PAGEBREAK]Wednesday, 16 April

The day was very productive. I met with the generals and continued to teach them how to operate in a U.S. military organization. Their main problem was using the chain of command. They didn't understand that each section was responsible to the section chief and that they didn't go directly to General Zohair. Coordination between the sections was not going smoothly either.

For example, the administration section was issuing a temporary badge to distinguish between the officers we hired and other officers, who may have been co-opted by the INC or hired by other U.S. military units. Not a bad idea, but General Bendar, the director of administration, was trying to do everything himself. This caused confusion between the sections. In the old Iraqi system, each section reported directly to the commanding general, so they had never learned to coordinate between sections. This was one way that Saddam's regime kept his subordinates from organizing against him.

Stafford was in charge of coordinating supplies and the armory. Marine units that had confiscated food, furniture, and weapons provided many items. He was also responsible for accounting for all the stolen government vehicles that were recovered and returning them to the appropriate government agency. During the fighting, any government vehicle that was not hidden or secured in someone's personal garage was stolen. Returning these fire trucks, police cars, ambulances, electric company cars, water trucks, and sanitation trucks to their agencies was imperative in order to get the city functioning again.

Rand was heading the effort to secure the facility and make the jail operational. A small Marine security team assisted us, but Rand knew that the Iraqi officers would soon have to take over. The MPs gave the Iraqi cops a brief class on processing arrestees, but Rand was the one who took the bull by the horns and made sure there was no abuse of prisoners. There were still some lingering doubts on our part that these guys wouldn't fall back to doing things the old way.

I had to go to a meeting at the Palestine that afternoon, and I returned to headquarters just after 1700 hours to find all the patrols were already gone. Everything was running smoothly. Then two officers came in with a bank manager from the Central Bank District and said that their patrol had been separated from the Marines and that two officers were trapped by a large group of civilian looters.

Fortunately, as we were receiving this information, a joint patrol was returning to the station. We told the patrol leader about the report and started toward the banks.

As we approached the Central Bank District we saw hundreds of people start running from the many banks in the area. Some were carrying money in their clenched fists, others in various bags. Iraqi dinar littered the ground, some of it burned from the many fires inside some of the banks.

Gunfire broke out all around us. We dismounted but held our fire, as none of us could distinguish targets among the crowds of people. Rand handed Gasson a captured AK-47 from our vehicle, and he gave his pistol to Maison. I directed Maison to watch our backs and the Marines from the joint patrol focused on trying to cover the numerous places from which we could take sniper fire.

We advanced in a tactical column until we came to a T-intersection that went left. I was on the right with Maison and Gasson covering straight down the street. Rand and Stafford were on the left and had to start "slicing the pie" around the corner. As he cut the corner, Rand took fire from two men dressed in civilian clothes. Their rounds hit in front of us as Rand returned fire, driving the men into an alley. We continued to move forward and started detaining individuals still trying to run out of banks.

The men with the rifles made their escape, but as we continued to clear the banks, Marine reinforcements arrived and we made a total of 16 arrests. Crowds of Iraqis cheered us as we drove the crooks off to our newly reopened jail. It was a very satisfactory feeling to have them approve of our joint patrols. Later one reporter told me it was very touching to see Marines and Iraqi cops patting each other on the back and asking if everyone was OK.

Best of all, the Iraqi officers who had been trapped made it back to the police headquarters safely.

Thursday, 17 April

At first I thought things would just keep getting better as the week wore on, but we had some setbacks. The first was that all Marine units were going to be relieved by the Army. We were going to be sent to southern Iraq. This was a hard pill to swallow after all the work we had been doing, but as good Marines do, we took it in stride.

But before the Army took over, We had work to do and problems to solve. The small jail was becoming very crowded and we needed more space. The second problem was finding weapons for the Iraqi officers. Most didn't even have pistols, and they were going up against criminals with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Rand did an excellent job of having the larger jail across the street cleaned up. We were also able to find some nice pistols for the Iraqi cops. Through the courtesy of the 7th Marines' commanding officer, Col. Steven Hummer, we were able to issue them .380 automatics that had been carried by Saddam's bodyguards.

Truthfully, day five was going very well until Mohammed Zobeidi sent another hundred or so Iraqi cops who had been co-opted by the INC down to our headquarters. And one of Zobeidi's cronies actually came to the new police headquarters and told me that he was the new general in charge of patrol. You can imagine my reaction to that. Fortunately, Lt. Col. Zarcone stepped in and ended that problem very quickly.

As a footnote I should tell you that after we left Baghdad, the U.S. Army arrested Mohammed Zobeidi and another ex-police official for "exerting authority" that they didn't have. You better believe that brought a smile to my face.

Friday, 18 April

We arrived at the new Iraqi Police Headquarters at 0800 sharp. Rand and Stafford started work with their sections, and I let the generals work their own issues. I had planned to inspect some traffic checkpoints, but I ended up sitting at the front gate just watching the bustle of activity and talking to Iraqi cops and citizens.

I just sat there and drank it all in. Traffic officers were bringing in stolen vehicles, officers were handling complaints from citizens, and patrol officers were going out without Marine escort to answer the calls. The situation was far from perfect; phones were still down in the city. But we had come a long way, and the Iraqi police and the Marines were working hard to restore order. I realized I was going to miss this place and these Iraqi cops who were trying to do the best they could under bad conditions.

Later that day I met with my Army replacements Major Crabb and Major Plerney, and I knew we would be leaving the interim Baghdad Police Department in good hands. Stafford, Rand, and I spent the rest of the day showing the Army guys around the area and going over the multitude of issues they would be facing. I envied them. I am not ashamed to say the sergeants and I agreed that we were a bit jealous. We wanted to continue what we had started.

As we were finishing the tour, General Zohair approached me and asked to speak to me regarding an important issue. I had heard the word "important" quite a bit during the week, so I was expecting the matter of importance to be routine. Then Zohair told me that Major Talal had apprehended one of Saddam Hussein's senior deputy prime ministers.

A citizen had reported to Major Talal that Hekmet Al Awazi, the deputy prime minister for finance, was walking in a nearby neighborhood. Talal responded with six other officers to check the location. Upon arrival he was directed to a house where he knocked on the door and Al Awazi answered. The arrest was made without incident.

We couldn't have been happier with that news. During the week, the interim police had been accused of still being part of the old regime and was under tremendous pressure from numerous outside sources such as the INC. The arrest gave them credibility and legitimacy. Most importantly, they had done it on their own, completely without the assistance of U.S. forces. It was the boost they needed and a great note for us to wrap up our operation on.

Saturday, 19 April

Stafford, Rand, and I left the new Iraqi police headquarters together. We exchanged some small gifts with Gasson and Maison and promised to try to keep in touch. They kissed us all three times on the cheeks, as is the custom in Iraq with friends. I wondered if we would ever see those two again, as we said goodbye.

It was a strange and wonderful experience. We three Southern California cops made it through the war and ended up, for one week, as the command staff of the Baghdad Police Department. The events of the week reminded me of all the things that are standard with good cops. They will work without pay when necessary. They watch each other's backs, like we did during the bank robbery. They are underequipped compared to the bad guys, but go on patrol every day anyway. And they love a good war story.

This is mine.

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