He answers to "Rambo," though he's more of a Mad Max figure, or the William Wallace played by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. His wife and brother are dead--killed, here in Ramadi, by foreign jihadists--and he will cheerily tell you he has nothing to live for and cares little if he dies tomorrow. In the meantime, though, he intends to capture (his current, Coalition-friendly practice) or kill (his prior, preferred technique) as many of his enemies as possible, and he has proven himself supremely competent at doing so. He'll be happy to show you movies of his handiwork, which he stores in his cell phone.
He is an Iraqi police officer, although he is beholden to no particular precinct or supervisor and has no partners. His nickname comes from Americans impressed with his exploits, but he shows no particular pride in it. (To fellow policemen he is Fahed--Jaguar.) He is in fact a modest and unassuming figure, neither personally nor physically imposing, aside from the array of heavy weaponry he habitually carries on his tall, slight frame, and he possesses a discerning intellect that belies his moniker. He is an apt representative of all that is contradictory and ambiguous, disturbing and hopeful, here at the West Ramadi Iraqi Police Station, which sits at a fork in the Euphrates about 70 miles west of Baghdad. It is here that I run one of the U.S. Army's "police transition teams," which trains and advises the men we hope will hold the peace in this slowly transforming city when we fade out of the picture. The time is September 2007.
I met Rambo on my first day here, and by the end of that day I had decided I wasn't morally equipped for this assignment. I had been given a grand tour of the facility, a heavily sandbagged former youth center that mostly survived the firefights, mortars, rockets, and bombs that shattered downtown Ramadi in the years preceding the "Anbar Awakening" and our alliance with tribal leaders here. A large rubble pile at one corner of the compound revealed where a truck bomb had gotten through. My tour included the room where my soldiers and I would live, the Iraqi-run jail, the restrooms (a horror of sight and smell), and the Happy Shack. The Happy Shack is a decrepit little cinderblock structure in the weeds out back where, a few weeks earlier, a group of Marines had stumbled upon an agonized man hanging from the ceiling by a ratchet strap attached to his wrists, which were themselves bound behind his waist. (Yes, like that. He had been there an indefinite period of time, but long enough so that his shoulders were utterly destroyed.) Upon his arrest by the Iraqi police he had been kept out of sight of American forces and subjected to the Iraqis' time-honored methods of interrogating high-value prisoners--the methods they would use routinely if we weren't here watching them. The Happy Shack is, it should be noted, painted pink on the inside.
From there I walked to an adjoining Coalition compound and ate lunch in a little plywood chow hall frequented by Americans and Iraqi soldiers and police. I chewed on cold cuts and cheese slices while a battered television played the Tom Hanks movie Big on a videocassette--one selection from a large box of old tapes that had belonged to an American family, a collection, complete with home movies, that had somehow found its way here by the riverbank. Such was the reeling surreality of a day I had begun as an underemployed artillery officer (we are trying to blow up less stuff in Ramadi these days) and ended as an adviser to thugs.
That evening I wrote to my fiancee: I need to harden myself against these men, to close off any natural empathy I may come to feel for them as I live and work among them. I will not forget who they are and what they do. I will arrest them myself and take them to the American...