Marines in Anbar: What Does Their Departure Mean for Iraq? 

June 7, 2020Kevin Knodell
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Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

What’s he doing?” asked Staff Sergeant Alfonso Paniaugua. 

“He’s just standing there talking on the phone,” Lance Corporal Trung Cao replied. The young U.S. Marine was looking at an Iraqi wearing camo fatigue pants on a hill in the distance. 

“Is he looking at us?” Paniagua asked. 

The Marines were operating out of Camp Manion, an encampment inside of Iraq’s Al-Taqaddum Air Base in Anbar province just outside of Fallujah. It was March 14, and just hours before their patrol, rockets had struck Camp Taji for the second time that week. 

An Iraqi spotted on a cell phone by the U.S. Marines on patrol. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.
An Iraqi spotted on a cell phone by the U.S. Marines on patrol. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

The Marines weren’t sure if the Iraqi was an army soldier or a member of an Iranian-backed militia. They were trying to determine if he could be relaying information about their movements. 

“No, he’s not really looking at anything,” Cao said. “He’s just talking.”

“Okay, let’s leave him be,” Paniagua replied, and they continued their patrol. 

These Marines spent their deployment sharing the air base with members of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shia militia group that has periodically attacked U.S. positions with rockets even as both sides tried to fight ISIS — and that they believed was the force behind the Taji strike. However, the Marines managed to avoid bloodshed between themselves and the militiamen through a mixture of restraint and shrewd decision making. 

The Marines had been preparing for the arrival of another unit to take over operations, but as they simultaneously dealt with heightened tensions with Iran and the worsening spread of the coronavirus, priorities were changing daily. The Marines ultimately turned Camp Manion over to the Iraqi military about a month later.

Marines and soldiers at Camp Manion construct Hesco barriers as they build new bunkers after the Taji strikes. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.
Marines and soldiers at Camp Manion construct Hesco barriers as they build new bunkers after the Taji strikes. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

For the Marines, the deployment was often weird and sometimes boring, but it offered a unique look into the changing face of 21st century warfare. The Marines didn’t see any combat but often found themselves in tense encounters with hostile forces. Coffee or Die was at Al-Taqaddum as the pandemic added more confusion to America’s mission in Iraq. 

The Marines navigated a tumultuous political landscape, while wrestling with their long and complicated legacy in Anbar’s deserts as they prepared to leave.

American forces first set up shop at Al-Taqaddum, or “TQ” as it’s known to the troops who served there, shortly after the 2003 invasion, and it became a key base for supporting operations during the first and second battles of Fallujah. Several soldiers and Marines that served there over the last two decades have left tongue in cheek Google reviews of the base: 

“Not the best place to spend spring break.” 

“Great view of the lake and beach. Mortar and sniper fire added a nice exciting element. Very little traffic and close to the night life in Fallujah.” 

“Top government vacation spot with lakeviews, toxic waters, mortars, ied’s and such. Oh and hot as hell i think it rained once. Good memories though.”

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Resort on the shore of Lake Habbaniyah. The lake was once a popular tourist destination in the region, especially for Iraq’s elites during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

The lake referenced is Lake Habbaniyah, and the town of the same name on its shore. In the late 1930s and 1940s, Lake Habbaniyah was used by Britain’s Imperial Airways as a refueling point and hotel for seaplanes making their way across the empire from British Isles to India. In the years Iraq gained independence, the lake became a popular vacation spot for Iraq’s elites well into the reign of Saddam Hussein.

Anbar province is both Iraq’s largest province and its most sparsely populated. Most of it is rugged, inhospitable desert that’s subject to blistering temperatures and sun much of the year, but that turns into thick mud and clay when the rains come. May is one of the brief months of spring where it is cloudy and patches of grass poke out of some hillsides, a welcome source of food for nomadic herders in the region trying to feed their livestock. In 2020, as coalition strikes hit other bases, the Marines at TQ watched herders outside the wire of the base closely — wary of potential scouts and spotters posing as shepherds.

Most of the people of Anbar live in the province’s major cities or along the Euphrates River, which makes its way to Baghdad from the Syrian border near Al Qaim. Over hundreds of years the people of Anbar have learned to thrive in, and love, the harsh desert lands they fiercely call home.

The Marines returned in 2016 when Iraqi forces retook Fallujah from ISIS militants. When they first arrived, they worked out of a small outpost outside the Iraqi military’s Anbar Operations Command that came to be known as “The Ranch,” but the footprint grew gradually larger as they occupied Camp Manion next to the airfield.

“This base wasn’t really planned out, it all just kind of happened. […] almost like a metaphor for the entire Iraq War.”

“This base wasn’t really planned out, it all just kind of happened,” a young Marine lieutenant remarked as he looked out at Camp Manion. He points to “CHU City,” a bunch of trailers the Marines had assembled only to learn that higher ups decided they would be sent elsewhere eventually — leaving them unoccupied while the Marines lived in tents. 

“This base is almost like a metaphor for the entire Iraq War,” the young officer said.

The Marines operated Camp Manion alongside several U.S. Army troops in support of elite U.S. Navy SEALs and Spanish Special Operations Forces who hunted ISIS while operating out of Camp Looney. The two camps were named for Marine Travis Manion and Navy SEAL Brendan Looney, best friends at the U.S. Naval Academy who both died fighting in Iraq and came to be buried side-by-side at Arlington Cemetery.

The rugged terrain of the base is punctuated by a strange mixture of artifacts from wars gone by. It was once one of the Royal Air Force’s bases as Britain kept watch over its empire. The base grounds are full of old, derelict Iraqi aircraft from Hussein’s rule, old American structures from Operation Iraqi Freedom, and demolished structures. 

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One of the “Ranch Hands” waves to a passing Iraqi soldier. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

“Q,” an Iraqi American contractor who worked with the Marines as a linguist, said his brother-in-law had served there during the Gulf War when the U.S. Air Force pounded it with state-of-the-art weapons as they tried fruitlessly to defend it with 1960s vintage anti-aircraft guns. Shortly after that, Q said, his brother-in-law left Iraq and eventually made his way to the U.K., where he now lives. Q was drafted by the Iraqi Army to invade Kuwait but promptly deserted and fled to Kurdistan, then eventually to America.

The Marines patrolled the airfield and surrounding grounds of the base daily, looking for irregularities. They frequently cross paths with a dizzying array of Iraqi soldiers, police, and militiamen. Some of the Iraqis on the base have at best ambiguous loyalties, and some are considered hostile. “You can’t always tell who you’re dealing with,” said Marine infantryman Sergeant Justin Dunkley.

In November 2019, the New York Times and The Intercept released a joint investigation of Iranian influence in the Iraqi government, including a message to an Iranian official that read: “all the Iraqi Army’s intelligence, consider it yours. Tell me what you need and I will provide it for you.” That same month, Kataib Hezbollah began attacking U.S. positions across Iraq with rockets.

TQ managed to avoid rocket attacks, and the Marines sometimes debated whether this was despite or because of their close proximity to Kataib Hezbollah. Though Kataib Hezbollah announced in the summer of 2019 that it intended to attack American troops with rockets and regularly made threats against the coalition, the militia never took credit for attacks and favored hit-and-run attacks. 

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Ranch Hands conduct firing range practice by Lake Habbaniya. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

The militia technically operates under the Iraqi government as the 45th Brigade of the Popular Mobilization Forces — meaning that, on paper, the Marines and the militiamen are on the same side. Though the militia wasn’t a friendly force, it was also not the enemy per se. The Marines’ mission was to support Iraqi troops and coalition special operations forces fighting ISIS, not to mix it up with Iranian forces or their proxy militias.

It was frustrating for some of the Marines to know that a militia group that they watched move around the same base as them in broad daylight was attacking American troops at other bases. 

“If they want to fight us like real men, they’re more than welcome,” one Marine remarked as he looked out at the desert. 

Colonel Scott Mayfield, the commander of Task Force Anbar, praised his Marines for showing restraint. “It’s a very complicated political environment, and the discipline these Marines have shown speaks to their training and professionalism,” Mayfield said.

At Camp Manion, Marines, soldiers, and contractors ate most of their meals at a large dining hall run by KBR. It had strong mall-food-court vibes with ambient music and a strange mixture of backdrops that contractors made for various holidays, including a castle that looked like a rejected Disney World prop. During meal times, the sergeant of the guard took hot food out to Marines guarding Manion’s perimeter. That day, Dunkley was making the rounds and checking on Marines.

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A message for Marines at Camp Manion. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

He stopped by a post manned by Corporals Timothy Jung and Zach Klosinski, where they looked out at the desert. Nothing to report. As they chatted, the Marines were visited by “Steve the Bird,” a small sparrow that they said comes and lands on the sandbags. Sometimes the Marines leave him food.

“He comes by the same time every day,” Klosinki said. 

“How could you possibly know it’s the same bird?” Dunkley asked. 

After a brief consideration, Jung firmly replied, “It’s the same bird. That’s Steve.” 

A Marine at another observation post said that when they’re on guard duty, “we’re not at war with ISIS, we’re at war with complacency.”

A short drive from Manion, a small group of Marines continued to operate out of “The Ranch.” Officially called Patrol Base Yale/Haerter, it was named after CPL Jonathan Yale and Lance CPL Jordan Haerter, who died in a suicide bombing while guarding an entrance to their compound in Ramadi in 2008. 

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The Marines with 3rd Platoon, Police Transition Team 3, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, come together April 29, 2008, to prove their resolve and to show support for one another. Cpl. Jonathan T. Yale, a rifleman with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter were killed in action April 22 by a suicide bomber inside a dump truck with approximately 1,000 pounds of high explosives. Photo by Lance Corporal Casey Jones, courtesy of DVIDS.

The Ranch was home to several military advisers and contractors who worked with the Iraqis, as well as a security detail of Marines known as the “Ranch Hands.” The Ranch was small, just a couple of tents surrounded by Hesco barriers and with a few observation posts. Marine platoons cycled in and out providing security for The Ranch while advisers worked with Iraqi forces. 

“It’s a great place to be,” said a Marine platoon commander. “You get to do your job and build up a bit of camaraderie away from the higher ups.”

From the observation posts, Marines looked out at life at the Anbar Operations Command. They watched as Iraqi soldiers went about their business, marching and conducting drills. One of the Ranch Hands described how he watched Iraqi troops train for combat conditions. As several Iraqis low-crawled through a field, another group of soldiers followed them shooting live rounds near the heads as they moved. 

“The Iraqis do things a bit differently,” he said.

The Iraqi troops would sometimes walk up to the The Ranch, and those who spoke English would chat with the Marines from across the barriers. Sometimes they’d trade gifts and snacks, tossing food and energy drinks to each other and exchanging flags and patches. Sometimes the Marines got to go outside; the Iraqis had a convenience store on the base, but the worsening spread of the coronavirus and increased tensions with militias led to stricter monitoring of movement.

It was frustrating for some of the Marines to know that a militia group that they watched move around the same base as them in broad daylight was attacking American troops at other bases.

Still, the Ranch Hands would occasionally make their way down to the lake to maintain their shooting proficiency. Twenty-two-year-old CPL Diego Hernandez, one of the Ranch Hands, had previously deployed to Iraq in 2017 providing security at Al Qaim for French Army artillery and coalition special operations forces as they provided support to Iraqi troops hunting ISIS cells. At the time they were the coalition’s farthest west presence in Iraq.

“It’s not like 10 years ago,” Hernandez said. When he’s back home in the states, Hernandez frequently finds himself dispelling misconceptions about what he’s doing in Iraq. He explained that people often think that American troops are going village to village, getting in shootouts, and banging down doors. “That’s not it at all. This isn’t direct combat. We’re just here to support the Iraqis,” he said.

Herandez was young when the Iraq War started, and he admits that when he first enlisted he hadn’t thought much about it. “I didn’t really understand what had happened,” he said. But he’s since learned from his superiors who served in those days. The Marines fought some of the most intense battles of the post-9/11 era in Anbar, especially in nearby Fallujah. 

Anbar’s sands are soaked in the blood of Americans and Iraqis alike who spent years living with the consequences of decisions made by faraway generals and politicians. Over the years, Anbar was the site of stories of battle, friendship, betrayal — and awakening. 

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Corporal Diego Hernandez walks toward an observation post at The Ranch. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

“Whatever happened then was then,” Hernandez said. “This is a different mission — we’re just here to help.” 

After the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Anbar — a mostly Sunni province — soon became a vital hub for insurgent operations. Foreign jihadists entering Iraq through Syria used the Western Euphrates River Valley as an infiltration and smuggling route to move men and materials to cities like Baghdad, Ramadi, and Fallujah.

Though the city of Fallujah had benefited economically from Saddam Hussein’s rule — many families had long traditions of service in the Iraqi Army and government — most of the city’s residents had little love for the dictator. The people of Anbar’s deserts had always had a fierce independent streak and many deeply resented Hussein’s autocratic rule. Shortly after the invasion, Fallujah held local elections and most leaders were considered nominally pro-American.

War planners didn’t expect the city to become a hotbed for insurgent activity, and initially U.S. forces committed few troops there. But in April 2003, 700 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne entered the city and about 150 troops billeted themselves at the Al Qa’id primary school, kicking out staff and teachers. On April 28, a crowd of approximately 200 locals gathered outside the school after curfew and demanded that the Americans leave and allow classes to resume.

U.S. bombs pummeled the Baghdad skyline in in the opening salvo of the invasion. Screenshot of CNN coverage of the Iraq invasion.
U.S. bombs pummeled the Baghdad skyline in in the opening salvo of the invasion. Screenshot of CNN coverage of the Iraq invasion.

As tensions escalated, the Americans fired gas canisters to disperse the crowd, but the Iraqis refused to budge. At some point during the confrontation, the Americans reported taking fire from gunmen and opened fire into the crowd. Seventeen Iraqis lay dead and 70 protesters were wounded, while the Americans suffered no casualties. Relations between U.S. forces and locals in Fallujah and nearby Habbaniyah quickly soured. Adding fuel to the fire, on May 23, 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the Iraqi military.

After taking Baghdad, the coalition had mostly been fighting Hussein’s most ardent loyalists and jihadists, but now thousands of Iraqi soldiers were out of work — and heavily armed. It jump-started the insurgency. Increasingly resentful Iraqi veterans quickly turned their weapons against the Americans and began joining forces with the foreign jihadists that flooded into the country after the invasion. Fallujah soon became a hotbed for insurgent activity as Al Qaeda and other groups began setting up shop in the city.

By June 2003, American forces began summarily confiscating motorcycles from local residents on grounds that the bikes were regularly used in hit-and-run attacks. Motorcycles are a common primary mode of transportation in Iraq. Late night “lightning raids” also increased, often resulting in property damage. On June 30, a large explosion at a mosque killed Sheikh Laith Khalil and eight other people. Several local Iraqis claimed that Americans had fired a missile at the mosque, but coalition forces insisted that it was the result of an accidental explosion by insurgent bomb makers.

By March 2004, increasing violence and anger toward the Americans led troops to withdraw from permanent positions in the city, instead making only occasional, short-term incursions into town. On March 27, a U.S. special operations surveillance team conducting covert operations in the city was compromised and had to shoot its way out.

On the morning of March 31, a U.S. Army combat engineer team 1st Infantry Division was sent out on a route clearance mission in support of the 82nd Airborne and military contractor Blackwater. Along the way from Habbaniyah to Fallujah, a roadside bomb killed five of the engineers. Later that day, a lightly equipped team of four Blackwater contractors made its way into Fallujah conducting a delivery for food catering company Eurest Support Services.

Why exactly the small Blackwater team had been operating in such a hostile environment with limited support for a catering run has been a continued subject of controversy — several family members of the fallen contractors later accused Blackwater of cutting corners to maximize profits and reached a confidential settlement in January 2012. Iraqi insurgents unloaded on the contractors with machine gun fire and a grenade thrown through a window of at least one of their SUVs. 

Angry locals then set the contractors’ bodies ablaze, dragged them through the streets, and hung them over a bridge. Images of the dead contractors hanging from the bridge made their way around the world — Americans were shocked and enraged. Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the chief suspect for planning the attack (though American intelligence later determined that Ahmad Hashim Abd al-Isawi, executed by the Iraqi government in 2013, was the most likely planner of the ambush).

Zarqawi founded the jihadist group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in 1999 and fought against American forces in Afghanistan that invaded in 2001 before returning to the Arab world. He had close ties to Al Qaeda, though he had an uneasy relationship with Usama Bin Laden — he’d once expressed to the Al Qaeda leader his desire to kill all Shia muslims, unaware that Bin Laden’s mother had belonged to a Shia family. Nevertheless, Bin Laden gave him $200,000 to recruit and train Jordanian jihadists.

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Then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James T. Conway, waits to address Marines at Camp Leatherneck, Aug. 18, 2010. Photo by Sgt. Heidi Agostini/Regional Command Southwest, courtesy of DVIDS.

In response to the killings of the contractors, American commanders in Baghdad ordered the nearby 1st Marine Expeditionary Force under Lieutenant General James Conway to launch a full-scale attack to “pacify” the city. It flew in the face of what Conway and Major General James Mattis had in mind for Fallujah — they had been drawing up intricate plans for a set of operations that would emphasize meeting with local leaders to turn over a new leaf, targeted strikes against militants to minimize civilian casualties, and robust humanitarian assistance. 

The plan was to win hearts and minds, but that plan was now off the table.

“We felt like we had a method that we wanted to apply to Fallujah, that we ought to probably let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge,” Conway told the Washington Post in September 2004. “Would our system have been better? Would we have been able to bring over the people of Fallujah with our methods? You’ll never know that for sure. […] When we were told to attack Fallujah, I think we certainly increased the level of animosity that existed.”

For just short of a month, U.S. Marines and soldiers fought house-to-house in a bloody battle against insurgents. Twenty-seven Americans died in the fighting, while the coalition killed 184 to 228 insurgents. Between 572 and 616 civilians died in the crossfire.

“We felt like we had a method that we wanted to apply to Fallujah, that we ought to probably let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge. […] When we were told to attack Fallujah, I think we certainly increased the level of animosity that existed.”

After a series of negotiations, Conway announced on May 1, 2004, that U.S. forces would turn over remaining operations to the newly formed Fallujah Brigade, a Sunni militia force. Formed with covert assistance by the CIA, it would be made up of former Baathist soldiers. The Marines were immediately concerned when many members of the Fallujah Brigade entered the city wearing their Baathist Republican Guard uniforms instead of the desert camo uniforms they had received from the Americans.

In August 2004, in the city of Najaf near Baghdad, Iraqi Shia Cleric Moqtada Al Sadr called for an uprising against American forces with his Mahdi militia — the United States was now dealing with a Sunni insurgency and a robust Shia militia movement that were both taking over neighborhoods and stockpiling arms. By September, the Fallujah Brigade ceased to exist, with most of its members deserting or defecting to insurgent groups. America was getting drawn into a deeper, more complicated conflict.

In October, Zarqawi formally pledged loyalty to Bin Ladin, and his group became known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. In November, coalition forces returned to Fallujah once again to chase Zarqawi, launching Operation Phantom Fury. Lasting from Nov. 7 to Dec. 23, 2004, it was the bloodiest single battle of the Iraq War. American forces suffered 95 killed, 560 wounded (54 of the dead and 425 wounded were in the first week alone). Eleven Iraqi Army troops and four British soldiers also died in the battle. The coalition killed between 1,200 and 1,500 fighters and captured 1,500 suspected insurgents. The Red Cross estimated that as many as 800 civilians died in the battle.

This time the Marines stayed in Fallujah, but Zarqawi escaped and violence continued to increase around the country. Zarqawi ordered a series of bombings across Iraq in crowded population centers, and in February 2006, his men detonated a bomb at the Golden Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam.

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Corporal Michael Soto during a patrol of TQ’s perimeter. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Shia militias began more widely killing Sunnis, sometimes with help from Shia members of the newly established American-backed army and police forces. The Iranian Quds force became more active in the war, both aiding ethnic cleansing campaigns against Sunnis and planning attacks against American forces. On June 7, 2006, American forces killed Zarqawi as he visited a safe house in Diyala Province, but by that time Iraq had already erupted into sectarian civil war — and American troops were caught in the middle.

Many of Anbar’s tribal Sheik’s initially tolerated Al Qaeda because they were fellow Sunnis. They saw them as a counterbalance against the Shia-dominated post-invasion government in Baghdad, Iranian-backed Shia militias, and American forces. But they soon came to resent the jihadists. Al Qaeda began enforcing a very strict form of Islam, telling Iraqis to grow beards instead of mustaches, punishing them for smoking cigarrettes, and beating women who didn’t obey their uncompromising dress codes.

The jihadists regularly meted out collective punishment as they massacred families, mutilated civilians and conducted terror bombings that killed civilians across Anbar. Even worse, they were hypocrites. While they told Iraqis they couldn’t smoke or drink and controlled what they wore, many of the jihadists themselves regularly drank, did drugs, and visited brothels between battles with the Americans. The sheiks decided they’d had enough. They began ordering tribal fighters to turn their weapons on the jihadists in what was called “The Anbar Awakening.”

The tribes began joining forces with the Americans and the Iraqi military. American forces had launched “The Surge” campaign. Several insurgent groups, including the 1920s Revolution Brigade that had fought the Americans in Fallujah, began fighting alongside U.S. troops as they searched for insurgents. They became known as “The Sons of Iraq,” and American forces began paying their salaries. 

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Staff Sergeant Alfonso Paniaugua and Sergeant Tyler Thomas search a small structure during a patrol of TQ’s perimeter a few hours after the second attack on Camp Taji. The Taji rocket strikes had been launched from abandoned buildings surrounding that camp. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Al Qaeda took heavy losses across Iraq, and many jihadists fled to Syria. American raids against Iranian-backed Shia militias also appeared to be weakening them — although many Shia militia leaders had already decided to turn their attention more toward backroom deals and seeking political influence than firefights with the Americans. 

The Surge was the most violent period of the Iraq War, but soon after it ended, market places and businesses reopened and it seemed Iraq’s worst days were behind it. After four bloody years, American forces turned Fallujah over to the Iraqi Forces and the Iraqi Provincial Authority during the fall of 2007.

As American forces prepared to leave Iraq at the conclusion of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the central government was supposed to take over paying the Sunni fighters. Iraq’s Shia president, Nouri Al Malaki, and other leaders had pledged to integrate them into the Iraqi security forces or provide job training to help the reintegrate into civilian life — many had only ever been soldiers and/or insurgents. 

However, Maliki also had close ties to Iran and Shia militia groups. Once the Americans left, the government in Baghdad reneged on many of its promises and provided only meager support. After Maliki’s reelection in 2010, Al Qaeda in Iraq — now calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq — began a campaign of assassination against Sunni tribal leaders and Awakening fighters with drive-by shootings. Between 2009 and 2013, 1,345 Awakening members were killed.

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A group of unidentified armed men pass a group of the Ranch Hands as they practice firing of their M240B machine guns near Lake Habbaniyah. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

The Islamic State also became a combatant in the bloody civil war in neighboring Syria and rebranded itself ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), absorbing other insurgent groups and drawing thousands of recruits from across the globe. Its leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, was charismatic and ruthless; its ties to Gulf State financiers and organized crime groups had given it deep pockets and better weapons than the competition. Recognizing infighting in Iraq, the newly reenergized group began bringing fighters across from Syria and taking over large swathes of Iraq.

By Dec. 30, 2013, ISIS was marching on Fallujah. Sunni tribal fighters begged Baghdad for reinforcements, but the central government largely ignored their pleas. Fallujah fell easily, and ISIS raised its black flag over the city on Jan. 4, 2014. The Iraqi government mostly ignored ISIS as it cut a bloody path through Sunni-majority provinces until June 2014 when the group took over Mosul — the country’s second largest city — and massacred Iraqi army troops. Now the group controlled a third of the country.

However, not all of Anbar fell. In the city of Haditha, tribal fighters held off for two years against ISIS militants laying siege on the town. The city was the scene of the Haditha Massacre, the bloodiest war crime committed by U.S. troops when a group of Marines went on a rampage through a neighborhood in retaliation for the death of a fallen comrades. However, while the Tribes of Haditha once welcomed the jihadists, they too eventually joined with the Marines to kick them out of town — they weren’t going to let them back.

Iraqi forces ultimately liberated Fallujah from ISIS in 2016 with help from both American and Iranian advisers. The U.S. Marines returned to Al-Taqaddum as the Iraqi military continued to make its way through Anbar and north toward Mosul. The Anbaris were glad to be rid of ISIS but saw the return of Baghdad’s forces as a mixed blessing — Kataib Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shia militias had come with them and were causing new problems for the province.

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Ranch Hands at the shooting range by the lake. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

When the coalition returned to Anbar, one of the major pushes was to reestablish a functioning police force. They set up a police academy in Habbaniyah with American, British, Italian, and Swedish advisers. However, they frequently had to navigate the local politics and the sectarian divide — most of Iraq’s military remained Shia while Anbar was solidly Sunni. Some Iraqi officials still weren’t interested in empowering local security forces in Sunni provinces.

Nevertheless, the coalition pushed forward trying to establish a Provincial Police force. “They’re pretty good,” said a Marine captain who advised them but requested not to be named. “They’re motivated, they know the lay of the land, and they’re interested in doing police work.” 

Mayfield said that’s ultimately the goal. “Success is when day-to-day operations in Anbar is just regular police work, not war fighting,” he said. 

But as the Marines conducted operations, they had to work around their Shia militia neighbors, who frequently tried to restrict their movements and access to local Sunni leaders. The Iraqi military often found itself torn between the Iranians and the Americans as both pursued very different strategies and tried to get the Iraqis to go along. 

“Success is when day-to-day operations in Anbar is just regular police work, not war fighting.”

“The problems are political — mostly that’s issues for the higher ups,” said Hernandez, who noted that his interactions with Iraqi troops were mostly positive. “On the enlisted side, most of us get along fine.” He noted that some of them even had friendly interactions with Kataib Hezbollah fighters, some even gifting the Marines with their militia’s flag as a souvenir. The situation on the ground was frequently stranger than analysts back in Washington could possibly imagine.

Several U.S. intelligence officers told Coffee or Die that Iraqi troops had on several occasions either tampered with or destroyed evidence of Iranian and militia involvement in attacks on American troops and tried to pass them off as ISIS attacks instead. The Iranian Quds force under General Qassem Soleimani had infiltrated all corners of the Iraqi government and had strong influence over commanders and appointments. 

In late September, the government removed Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi from his post as the commander of the country’s elite counterterrorism forces. Saadi and his men played a central role in liberating Fallujah and Mosul, and he was one of a handful of officials to enjoy both widespread public approval among both Shia and Sunnis — he was one of the country’s few true war heroes. 

Saadi’s cordial relationship with American special operations troops, with whom his troops worked closely — made Soleimani uneasy. His replacement was an officer known to have close ties to Iran, leading to outrage in many corners of the country. Protests broke out soon after. While Saadi’s removal played a role in sparking protests, the activists’ grievances ran much deeper. As protests intensified, Soleimani flew to Iraq’s Green Zone where he chaired a meeting of top Iraqi security officials in place of the prime minister. Soleimani told the Iraqis, “we in Iran know how to deal with protests, this happened in Iran and we got it under control.”

Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, with a group of Iran Revolutionary Guard members in Tehran in October. Screen grab taken from "Fears of WWIII after U.S. air strike on Iran's Gen. Soleimani?" video uploaded by USA Today on Jan. 3, 2020.
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, with a group of Iran Revolutionary Guard members in Tehran in October. Screen grab taken from “Fears of WWIII after U.S. air strike on Iran’s Gen. Soleimani?” video uploaded by USA Today on Jan. 3, 2020.

Soon after, masked men and snipers began killing protesters. Kataib Hezbollah was suspected of playing a central role in the killings. As many as 800 Iraqi protesters have died since October, and countless have been wounded. The violence against the protesters deeply divided Iraq’s police and military — many of them shared the protester’s grievances and had friends and family members marching in the streets. Further complicating the situation, members of the Iraqi security forces have at various points both attacked and joined the protesters.

Some career Iraqi military men increasingly resented the Iranians and their militia allies, feeling they were claiming credit for victories that leaders like Saadi and his men had bought and paid for in blood. Iraqi counterterrorism troops did most of the fighting to drive ISIS out of cities, while the militias in the best of circumstances provided rear security and at worst raped and pillaged the countryside, stirred up more conflict, and jeopardized hard-won victories.

After a rocket attack in Kirkuk last year killed an American contractor and wounded five American troops, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandi on Jan. 3, 2019. A drone killed them at Baghdad International Airport. Many protesters celebrated news of their deaths, but others felt America was stomping on Iraqi sovereignty. Shortly after, the coalition ordered a temporary pause on all anti-ISIS operations and training with Iraqi forces.

A few days later, Iran launched ballistic missiles at Al-Asad Air Base, home to the largest American presence in Anbar province. The missiles killed no Americans, but over the following weeks military medical teams realized the explosions inflicted as many as 100 traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) on American troops.

marines anbar iraq coffee or die kevin knodell
An Iraqi soldier at the Anbar Operations Command. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Things were tense at Al-Taqaddum as Marines and Kataib Hezbollah militiamen eyed each other suspiciously. A coalition source in Baghdad said that in the days following the death of Soleimani and Muhandis, the Marines frequently found themselves deescalating tensions with both the militamen and Iraqi soldiers upset by the bombings. On several occasions at The Ranch, Iraqis approached the Marines shouting and brandishing weapons.

Other Iraqis felt differently. One Marine captain said that during the pause the police he had been advising with regularly reached out to check on him to see how he was doing. Particularly Sunni provincial police worried about their American friends. “They were pretty sympathetic,” said the Marine advisor. “They’re not very happy with Iran.”

In February, the Iraqi military forces launched Operation Heroes, an offensive against ISIS without American air cover or the assistance of Iranian-backed groups. “During the pause, the Iraqis showed that they’re more than capable of fighting ISIS,” Mayfield said. “They’ve come a long way — they’re military professionals and they’re tactically proficient.”

Sometime after training and joint-operations resumed, a Marine officer recalled that after a group of Kataib Hezbollah militiamen flipped their truck near Camp Manion and several of them were injured, one Iraqi army officer told him, “If we’re lucky, we won’t have to deal with those assholes again for a few weeks.”

marines anbar iraq coffee or die kevin knodell
U.S. Marines pass by an Iraqi military position at TQ. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Coalition operations against ISIS gradually resumed, but the Marines continued dealing with disruptions to their supply lines as IEDs targeted convoys coming in from Kuwait. Attacks on the “white trucks,” civilian contractors hauling supplies for the coalition, were no secret, and though Kataib Hezbollah wasn’t taking credit, they boasted on social media that they were tracking all of the coalition’s movements.

Like several coalition positions around the country, there were plans to withdraw from TQ eventually, but the Marines kept getting different messages on different days. The best that they understood was that the plan was to turn over the base to incoming Marine replacement and that they would ultimately turn over the base to Iraqi forces at the end of the year.  

Marines and soldiers at the base continued to build new fortifications. “We kind of need to act like we’re staying while planning like we’re going at the same time,” one Marine officer said. He speculated that American commanders on some level may have wanted to maintain a presence to retain access to the airfield for future operations.

As the fallout from Soleimani’s death settled and operations seemed to be getting back on track, the spread of the coronavirus into Iraq began disrupting operations yet again. Marines patrolling the base had usually checked in with Iraqi Army troops at watch towers and guard posts, but received new orders to keep their distance unless interaction was absolutely necessary.

“Ultimately you have to remember that you can’t care about this country more than they do. You just can’t. It’s their country, not ours.”

On March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic. The same day rockets struck Camp Taji, killing two Americans and a British soldier and wounding 14 coalition personnel. 

“We don’t want this to escalate, we’re here to help you fight [ISIS, but] this is a distraction,” a young Marine intelligence officer coldly told an Iraqi general during a meeting the day after the Taji attack. The Marines nicknamed the Iraqi general “Danny Devito” for his disheveled appearance that reminded them of Frank Reynolds, Devito’s character on the show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

The general was known for his friendly demeanor, but he quickly became serious as he read the frustration of his American allies. “We know you keep the base safe, and we appreciate it,” the Marine continued. “My concern is I think we all know who did this, and they’re on this base.”

“I agree,” the general replied. The Marines went on to quiz him about attacks on their supply lines. The general said that he knew nothing about it, but agreed it was a matter of concern.

On March 14, rockets struck Taji again. This attack took place at 11 AM. Usually rocket attacks occured at night, so the daytime attack was unusual. That day, Staff Sergeant Paniagua’s squad was leading a patrol of TQ. As they were nearing the end of their deployment, squad leaders began letting more junior Marines lead patrols to gain leadership experience. 

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Marines watch “Generation Kill” before a patrol. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Sergeant Tyler Thomas, who would soon be up for promotion, led patrol that day. Before the mission, Thomas found the Marines watching “Generation Kill” on the TV. Others played video games in another corner. Eventually, Thomas herded them into the briefing room and laid out their route. Thomas told them to pay particular attention to old, abandoned buildings since both strikes at Taji had been launched from timed launchers placed on old structures around the base. 

They gathered their gear and loaded into their MRAPs and began making their way around the perimeter. As they came upon a cluster of old buildings, Thomas gave the order to dismount. They made their way across a field and began searching the abandoned buildings. As they moved, a group of Iraqi soldiers watched them. Thomas told them to keep an eye on them, but not to freak out.

The Marines moved carefully between clusters of buildings. Near one of them they found a set of boxes that looked new and clean, while everything else around was old and dirty. They carefully inspected the boxes while other Marines formed a perimeter. Paniagua looked up a hill at the ruins of an old stone structure. He asked Thomas if he wanted to look at it. Thomas agreed and sent Paniagua and a handful of other Marines to check it out while the rest of the group stayed below.

Cao took point moving up the hill as the rest of the Marines gradually followed. When they reached the top of the hill they found the stone structure was full of nothing but more old rocks, weeds, and scattered garbage. From the top of the hill, the lake glinted slightly in the distance. On a hill across from the Marines they saw the Iraqi in a camouflage uniform on a cell phone. Cao aimed his rifle, and after a brief deliberation, the Marines decided he wasn’t a threat and left to resume their patrol.

marines anbar iraq coffee or die kevin knodell
Marines search a structure for anything unusual during a patrol of TQ. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

The Iraqi troops continued watching the Marines as they left. Upon returning to Manion, Thomas and Paniagua debriefed their Marines. They made note of the Iraqis watching them, but also said that if the Iraqis had come near their positions, they would have been just as watchful. 

“They were doing the same thing we would have done,” Thomas said.

After the strikes on Taji, American planes struck suspected Kataib Hezbollah positions. Coalition officials said several IRGC commanders died in the strikes, but the Iraqi government claimed that no militiamen died in the strikes and that the Americans killed only Iraqi troops and civilians. After the retaliatory strikes, a supposedly new militant group calling itself the “League of Revolutionaries” took credit for the attacks on Taji.

On March 19, the coalition announced that it would once again suspend training operations with Iraqi security forces, this time due to the coronavirus in order to limit contact. Along with the pause in operations would come a massive repositioning of forces. Americans would be withdrawn from several positions well ahead of schedule. Several coalition sources also told Coffee or Die that intelligence suggested Iran planned more ballistic missile attacks on coalition positions.

marines anbar iraq coffee or die kevin knodell
Marines break down The Ranch. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

On March 22, The Ranch officially closed. The Marines tore down the post in record time. One of the Ranch Hands said that in the last weeks some of the Iraqi soldiers had been throwing rocks at them. “It’s bittersweet,” he said as fellow Marines broke down the post. “But it’s also kind of cool to be the last one out.”

The following weeks were a blur as Marines loaded their gear and heavy equipment. On April 4, the Marines officially handed Camp Manion over to the Iraqi military. They held the ceremony at the dining facility in front of the castle backdrop as Mayfield signed papers in front of a herd of cameras.

When the Iraqi Ministry of Defense posted video of the ceremony, social media viewers were baffled. “Child’s pizza parlor and arcade? High school drama department set? Medieval Times liquidation sale? I have no fucking clue, but for some reason, this is the backdrop for the official sign over of a huge coalition base in Iraq’s Anbar Province to Iraqi Security Forces,” wrote journalist Tyler Rogoway. It was a strange end to a strange saga.

American forces pulled back to larger bases as Patriot Missiles arrived in Iraq. U.S. troops now had protection from future missile attacks. As the Americans scaled back and repositioned, several Iraqi officers told Kurdish news outlet Rudaw that they privately wished the Americans would stay and worried about how a diminished U.S. presence would impact the fight against ISIS. 

marines anbar iraq coffee or die kevin knodell
Ranch Hands. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Some of the Marines leaving Al-Taqaddum were frustrated that they would be potentially leaving the base in the hands of Kataib Hezbollah. They wondered whether the Shia military officers they worked with would ever truly support the local Sunni police forces they’d hoped to build and finally treat the people of Anbar with respect, or if another bloody cycle would start. 

“Ultimately you have to remember that you can’t care about this country more than they do,” said one Marine officer with a shrug. “You just can’t. It’s their country, not ours.”

In early May, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former Iraqi intelligence chief, officially became the country’s new prime minister after parliament voted to approve his appointment and most of his cabinet. Iraq’s parliament has struggled to form a new government as protesters have continued marching and demanding an end to corruption, unemployment, and foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs. Kataib Hezbollah and several other Iranian-backed groups vocally opposed his appointment and claimed that he had a hand in helping America kill Soleimani and Muhandis. 

“He [Kadhimi] is one of those accused of helping the American enemy to assassinate top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and deputy head of Hashd al-Shaabi [PMF], Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis,” a Kataib Hezbollah spokesperson tweeted in March. “Therefore his nomination is a declaration of war on the Iraqi people, and will burn the remaining stability in Iraq.” 

marines anbar iraq coffee or die kevin knodell
Storm clouds over TQ. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

The Iraqi National Intelligence Service responded to the accusation by calling Kataib Hezbollah “outlaws.” After taking office, Kadhimi ordered Iraqi security forces to arrest several militiamen suspected of firing on protesters. Kadhimi also ordered the release of large numbers of Iraqis arrested for protesting and reappointed Saadi as head of Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Forces

ISIS for its part has pledged to take advantage of America’s drawdown to reestablish itself. However, American forces haven’t left Iraq. Planes continue flying out of Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar with troops and supplies, and the 60-day pause has more or less lifted. While the COVID-19 virus continues to pose serious challenges in Iraq, American and Iraqi special operations forces have resumed raids against ISIS. As Iraq’s regular army troops found themselves increasingly pulled from fighting ISIS to enforcing quarantines in cities, Iranian-backed militias continued making their way across the countryside getting in periodic gun battles with the insurgents.

This month, American and Iraqi officials are set to meet to reassess the future of American troops in Iraq and the nature of their partnership. Kadhimi, despite his now contentious relationship with many Shia militias, has met with several PMF commanders to reassure them that he’s willing to work with them too. Iraq’s leaders continue their balancing act as they contend with America, Iran, and continuing the fight against ISIS.

However, many activists remain skeptical of the newly formed government. Despite Kadhimi’s pledge to release jailed protesters, few have been set free. After a brief lull due to both the pandemic and Ramadan, protests have continued to rage across the country as Iraqis demand wide-reaching reforms and an end to corruption. While America and Iran continue to compete for influence, Iraqis seem more and more adamant about determining their own future.

Kevin Knodell
Kevin Knodell

Kevin Knodell is a freelance journalist and author. His work has appeared at Foreign Policy, Playboy, Soldier of Fortune, and others. He’s the associate producer of the War College Podcast and a former contributing editor at Warisboring. He’s the co-author of the graphic novels The ‘Stan and Machete Squad, and he currently writes the Acts of Valor comic series for Naval History magazine.

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