The Mayor of Ar Rutbah
Amid the chaos in Iraq, one company of U.S. Special Forces achieved what others have not: a functioning democracy. How? By relying on common sense, the trust of Iraqis, and recollections from Political Science 101. Now, their commander reveals the gritty reality about nation-building in Iraq, from the ground up.
As our long column of tan trucks rode down Iraq’s Business Highway 10 at 6 o’clock in the morning on April 9, 2003, I focused on my instincts and battle training, keeping an open mind and preparing for whatever lay ahead. After three weeks of intense firefights, the Fedayeen Saddam fighters had finally slithered away. The last thing I expected to do once we entered Ar Rutbah, a Sunni city of about 25,000 in the Anbar province near Jordan and Syria, was to begin postwar reconstruction. I had not planned or prepared for governing, nor had I received any guidance or assistance in how to do so. But then, nothing in war is expected.
With just six 12-man teams and an area of desert about the size of New Jersey, we viewed the city as a major complication in our mission to stop the ballistic missile launches from western Iraq. A town the size of Ar Rutbah could easily swallow the entire company. And in this conflict where special ops forces were in high demand, we had to move to Baghdad as soon as possible. Civil administration would have to be the responsibility of conventional troops following in our tracks. Of course, the Fedayeen were not interested in our itinerary. For weeks, they had entrenched themselves in the city, using civilians as shields. Every time we approached, Ar Rutbah became a hornet’s nest, and small-arms fire turned into machine gun and rocket fire. Although we overwhelmed the enemy each time, it became clear that the Fedayeen had to be forced out. So on that day in early April, as the rest of the world watched a statue of Saddam fall in Baghdad, we began our own small revolution.
Long before we entered, we had developed channels of communication with people inside the city. Every time we encountered civilians on our patrols or used loudspeakers, we would announce, "We are at war with Saddam, not you." We were friendly and respectful whenever we met a Bedouin or farmer, often sharing tea with them in the middle of the open desert. Our behavior sent the clearest message: We cared more about the people of Ar Rutbah than did the Fedayeen. After all, we had done everything possible to limit damage to civilian infrastructure and private property. We didn’t bomb schools or mosques, even though they were used as military bases. We treated enemy wounded and distributed contraband food. I stopped our final assault to institute a day-long cease-fire as a gesture to the people of the city. Our early signals of respect would prove to be vital in earning the trust of the people of Ar Rutbah.
Yet we still didn’t know what to expect as we rolled into town. All our intelligence predicted no resistance, but we were still bracing for a fight. Ar Rutbah was tan and dusty, with connected concrete buildings that displayed battle scars from our bombs and firefights. As we entered, street traffic came to a standstill. Iraqis gathered along the main and side streets. Most people just watched, a little apprehensive. Some were glad we were there and shook our hands. We asked them to stay out of the way so no one would get hurt. We cleared known enemy positions, scouring each sandbagged bunker, room, and compound to ensure that all hostile fighters were gone. Finally, we located the police station, a fort built by the British in 1927. The police chief had locked it when the enemy fled. It would be the perfect location for my company’s headquarters.
Our next move was to summon the civil administrators, chief of police, and tribal leaders. Two hours after we arrived in Ar Rutbah, a dozen Iraqis, the company warrant officer, and I gathered in the dark, dusty office lined with Saddam photos and plaques, and began to plot out the civil administration of the city.
SECURING THEIR HOMELAND
I considered security the top priority; for me, the functions of security and governance were inseparable. So, at that first meeting, I made it very clear that U.S. troops retained the monopoly on the use of force. I prohibited all weapons. Any civilian carrying a firearm would be considered a threat. We established checkpoints on the main roads on the outskirts of Ar Rutbah to protect the city from regime elements, as well as any lingering criminals. As soon as possible, we would integrate the local police into our checkpoints; it would garner trust and cooperation — plus, they knew who was from the city and who had legitimate business there.
The sooner I involved and empowered the Iraqis, the better. I asked the group to select one of them to be interim mayor and by noontime prayers on the first day, we had an acting Iraqi mayor of Ar Rutbah, a lawyer from a dominant tribe who’d had a falling out with the regime. He, the city officials, and tribal sheiks left the station as the city’s new leaders.
The police were essential for restoring local security, for protecting the city from outsiders, and for our disengagement. Although I had only a few dollars, we spent $700 to pay the police first, and a month in advance. The highest-ranking policeman to return to duty was a lieutenant. He was very sharp, receptive to our guidance, and people followed his orders, so I appointed him interim chief of police. It wasn’t long before the previous chief returned. He was suspect because he had fled with the enemy and most people identified him as a regime thug. But I gave him the opportunity to start with a clean slate. Unfortunately, he tried to subvert our authority by ordering a police strike, and within two days, we had to detain him. By the end of the first week, we armed the police, first with pistols, and then with AK-47s. Soon, we had more than 30 officers back in uniform.
Of course, it takes more than just a uniform to wash away years of subjugation and oppression. Each individual that was going to participate in the interim government of the new, free Ar Rutbah would have to sign a pledge renouncing Baath Party loyalty, affiliation, and favoritism. It would include a pledge of allegiance to a free Iraq, to protect the rights of its citizens, and to serve the people of Ar Rutbah. Our company warrant officer wrote the pledge, I reviewed it, he translated it, and the interim mayor approved it. We even held a small ceremony in the police station’s courtyard, where the interim mayor, city officials, the police, a few tribal sheiks, and an Iraqi army colonel pledged their allegiance to this new Iraq. We were not very formal. It was more of a commencement where we congratulated each person for their courage in turning over a new leaf. There would be no more abuse of power, no more corruption, and no more coercion. If others were truthful and willing to be part of the new Iraq, they could sign the form and move on. As word spread, someone came in to sign almost every day.
I viewed anyone who subverted security as a threat, Baathist or not. When intelligence reported individuals committing crimes or working with enemy combatants, we acted. We didn’t pursue anyone for what they had done during the fighting; we did not continue the war ourselves. High-level Baathists did have to come in for questioning, but only those identified as war criminals were detained. We asked people to tell us where guns and munitions were, but we did not ask who shot at us last week. I was not going to pursue the teenagers who had been directed to shoot at us by the senior Fedayeen. As long as they did not take up arms again, they could go on playing soccer in the streets. By quickly establishing an effective Iraqi alternative to the regime, we made resistance irrelevant. We skipped over the gap where insurgency would grow. Had we remained idle, we would have missed the opportunities in front of us.
RESTORING THE BASICS
After noontime prayers that first day, the informal city council gathered together again to work on the next priority, public works. I asked the interim mayor and the council what the city’s priorities were. They agreed electricity was the most important, then water, fuel, and the market. We worked day and night, and in only a couple of days, we turned 60 percent of the power back on in Ar Rutbah. Once, I remember being awakened at 4 a.m. by the sound of morning prayers blaring from the city’s minarets. It was a hopeful sign; it meant the power was back on, the city was getting back to normal, and, more practically, we could now use the minarets for public announcements. We strove to show respect for local culture by using their customary means of communication: minarets, murals, and word of mouth. The interim mayor made the first announcement about electricity that very morning.
Our days were incredibly busy. The city’s only hospital was mostly destroyed in the fighting, so I offered to turn the local Baath Party headquarters, the nicest building in the city, into the new hospital. The complex was large, clean, and freshly painted, with a walled courtyard and smaller buildings for hospital administration. I thought it fitting that this symbol of oppression would now be dedicated to the health of the people. The mayor and the doctors loved the idea, and I liked that it would represent the new kind of polity that was being established in Ar Rutbah.
Around the city, the Fedayeen had knocked out windows, stockpiled weapons, and sandbagged rooms for fighting positions in the schools. We cleared these buildings the first day, but earlier looting had rendered them a mess. Cleaning and preparing the schools for students again was a high priority, but we couldn’t start right away. Because I had only a few troops and fewer dollars, the mayor and I decided to hold a city volunteer day. Teachers and everyday citizens got together and cleaned up the schools themselves. It was a good day at the end of a long week when the minarets announced that school would start again.
The economy was in even worse shape than the schools. Once we got the power on, a couple of merchants requested to use our cell phones to contact business partners in nearby Jordan to import food and goods. We jumped on that. In one day, the market had fresh fruit and vegetables and fish and meat for the first time in months. The market street was bustling again, quickly becoming a traffic jam of people, goats, and goods.
Both security and electricity sustained the market. But there was also a need for a stability that was more than just policing the streets and turning on the lights. After the market and shops opened, questions arose: Would they adopt the U.S. dollar? What is the exchange rate? What is the price of gas? I had to make some quick decisions. The Iraqi dinar would remain the city’s currency, at the prewar exchange rate. I purchased a grocery bag of dinars and paid the police in their own currency to show I had confidence in it. I allowed the mayor to open gas stations to get fuel to the people and to generate revenue for Ar Rutbah. Gas stations were owned by the government prior to the war and I kept it that way. I set the price of gas at prewar rates, and punished any price gougers. I convinced the bank manager to open the bank and operate normally. Then I reopened the city’s account so the interim mayor had control over the books and could pay city employees. Otherwise, I had a hands-off approach to economics.
Although I focused more on security and governance than on economics, the three were interdependent. A thriving market was the product of effective governance, and it increased support for the administration. Good governance provided the services such as electricity, law and order, and the stability needed for the market to function. And security forces fostered the economic and political development of the city. Because the three were interconnected, we acted on them simultaneously. As a result, the Iraqis became interested in democracy because that balance met their needs.
ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL
My initial approach to governing was very authoritative; it eliminated anarchy and allowed Iraqis to debate the details of democracy rather than survival. What the Iraqis needed was an interim authority to get them back on their feet. While the interim mayor and I provided this stability, the city council’s role was to oversee the mayor and to provide input, not necessarily to make policy. The laws and values of their society and culture were just fine. All we needed to do was enforce them. The city council was an important body for dialogue, debate, and legitimacy. But by initially limiting its decision-making power, we made sure the council couldn’t paralyze our progress.
Representatives in the city council included teachers and doctors, lawyers and merchants. At one town-hall meeting, a few of these professionals asked me about elections. They said the tribal sheiks and imams did not represent their interests, and they wanted to have a say in their government. I explained that they couldn’t vote right away because we had no election monitors or ballot boxes. Still, they insisted. Two rudimentary elections were held in the grand mosque to reconfirm the interim mayor — and Americans were not involved in either vote.
As an alternative to Saddam’s regime, the particular form of democracy was not as important as the concept of a polity that provided for the individual. That was really what Iraqis missed under Saddam. Good governance had to precede the form or type of democracy. Because we were effective in providing services, were responsive to individual concerns, and improved their lives, the Iraqis gravitated toward us and the changes we introduced. However, we didn’t have to change much. Ar Rutbah already had a secular structure that worked. We just put good people in office and changed the character of governance, not the entire infrastructure.
A ROLE FOR RELIGION
Under the old regime, the imams and tribal sheiks in Ar Rutbah had defined their roles in relation to the dictates of Saddam and the Baath Party. As we quickly set up the new government, the sheiks and imams found themselves defining their roles in response to the new order we established. That was good news for us; it kept the structure of relationships in balance and prevented a power shift to them. To earn their trust, I included these leaders in the political process. I met with them regularly, and they were members of the city council. Clerics and tribal leaders functioned in ways that were both constructive and traditional for their culture. Early on, we decided to give humanitarian rations to the imams and sheiks for distribution because they knew who the neediest people were.
In addition, we instituted an open-door policy. One day, a few tribal sheiks came to complain of looting at night in some parts of the city. So, knowing that some of the sheiks were behind some of the looting, I established a neighborhood watch. I put them in charge and had their men act as the watchmen. And the sheiks were held accountable if the looting continued. I also had a team patrol those areas at night at random. The stealing ended abruptly.
The tribal sheiks were important because they transmitted information by word of mouth. But by far, the most effective way we communicated with the people was through the mosques. Public service announcements were made over the loudspeakers in the minarets, and when the Iraqis gathered in the mosque for prayer, the interim mayor explained what we were doing. A public announcement emanating from the mosques signaled their approval and gave legitimacy to our efforts.
WORKING OURSELVES OUT OF A JOB
I spent long days in the police station courtyard or in the police chief’s office, meeting with an endless procession of tribal sheiks, city officials, the army colonel, policemen, merchants, and anyone else that wanted to speak with me. I listened to their issues, problems, and needs, and satisfied their curiosity about us. I would make decisions, pass judgments, resolve disputes, issue guidance, and direct resources. We were very cordial and followed their customs with tea, cigarettes, and small talk. But in the end, I made a decision and we acted on it.
Eventually, I passed the decision making to the interim mayor, the city council, and then to issue-area councils, until security was the only thing I still controlled. By day nine, I was no longer the focal point for governance. I moved my command post to our logistics compound on the edge of the city. Up until the last day, I kept an open-door policy to keep in touch with the Iraqi people.
In the end, I spent only about $3,000. This sum included the salaries of the police, the mayor, the army colonel, and a few soldiers and public officials. We paid for the crane and the flatbed trailers to move the generators to the city for electricity, and for fuel to run the generators. And we picked up the tab for other necessities, such as painting, tea, and copies of the renunciation form. But the change did not depend on the influx of funds; the Iraqis did a lot themselves. The real progress was the efficient and decent government and the environment we established. Without a lot of money to invest, we made assessments and established priorities, and talked with the Iraqis, exchanging ideas and visions of the future.
We intended to work ourselves out of our jobs, and when conditions were right we took steps back. We were preparing to move eastward; Iraqi tank divisions had not capitulated yet, and there was Saddam and others to capture and weapons of mass destruction to find. Civil administration was a secondary mission for us, and we had only limited time to spend on local politics.
And so, in the middle of the night on April 23, I rode to the eastern edge of the city in a white SUV on loan from the interim mayor. Leaving a few teams behind for another couple of weeks, I flew out of Ar Rutbah on a black Chinook helicopter. The darkness and the noise of the helicopter insulated me and I was able to look back on the past two weeks. These accomplishments were all possible because the Iraqis wanted them, but also because of the amazing teamwork and competence of the men in our Special Forces company. We made remarkable progress in only 14 days. But civil development takes much more time.
Reflecting on it now, and on so much of what has happened in Iraq since we left, I can point to the reasons we succeeded so early on where many others have not. First, we lived modestly, and we did not occupy any private houses or regime buildings. We did not limit ourselves to certain functions or tasks, or fail to adjust to the realities on the ground such as stopping looting, providing electrical power, and other nation-building tasks. When nation-building became our mission, we performed without any hesitation. In addition, our immersion in the city fostered mutual understanding. Because we worked with and through Iraqis in all endeavors, they had a sense of ownership toward the new Ar Rutbah, and our success became their success. We behaved as if we were guests in their house. We treated them not as a defeated people, but as allies. Also, our forces ensured that political decisions were binding. Anyone that interfered with any part of government, public works, or a supply delivery was considered an enemy, just as if they had threatened security. In that environment, security and governance were intertwined at every level.
In the end, though, we left. Although the Iraqis continued the work we started, the follow-up coalition forces did not. The distance between the locals and the troops widened. The Iraqis were eventually exposed and vulnerable to regime loyalists’ retribution and intimidation by foreign fighters. The local Iraqi security forces never developed to the point where they were stronger than the gangs of insurgents; they were never brought into a larger political or security framework of an Iraqi government so that they could be part of a collective security system. Left alone, the Iraqis simply couldn’t hold off the foreign fighters who passed through the city, using Ar Rutbah as a way station en route to Baghdad and Ramadi.
For the brief time I was mayor of Ar Rutbah, I knew we were the real revolutionaries there. Change had to come from the top down. Because we didn’t receive any guidance for governance or reconstruction, and certainly not for spreading democracy, I had to make up everything as I went, based on the situation on the ground and what I remembered from my Special Forces training and a handful of political science classes. I entered the city with only our strategic objective for Iraq in mind: to establish a free, democratic, and peaceful Iraq without weapons of mass destruction. And that is what I tried to achieve in my own microcosm of the war.