Dispatches from Iraq — The Fallujah Liaison Team

It wasn’t a group of people, but a place

Jesse R. Barker
6 min readDec 30, 2021
1st Marine Division Commander, MajGen Mattis, address recently released Iraq POW as a of good faith during the truce in Fallujah (Photo by Author May 2004)

May 2004 — We called it the Fallujah Liaison Team (FLT). It wasn’t a group of people, but a place. A small walled compound outside the main Marine Corps base near the City of Fallujah. It was along Route 10, just south of the Jordanian Hospital. In the summer of 2004, it was the one place in Al Anbar province where Marines and Iraqis could meet on neutral ground and attempt to do the business of rebuilding the province.

We were not sure of its original purpose. Some said that the small u-shaped building once was the office for a local farming business. We found bones in the ground around the buildings during our stay, so I often wondered what else went on at the site. The compound was not more than an acre in size with a 15-foot concrete block wall surrounded the stone and stucco building shielding it from view and direct fire. The building was a series of single rooms open to a roofed walkway, all of which surrounded a small courtyard. Arrayed around the building was our communication equipment, including a nest of antennas poking up over the wall. Outside the entrance, the Seabees built plywood huts for extra office space and staged supplies for use if, and when, we ever decide to retake Fallujah. It wasn’t much to look at, but it served its purpose.

What made the FLT unique was is its mission. It was a place for Marines and Iraqis from Fallujah to interact without repercussion. They had formed a truce after the first battle for Fallujah that prevented Marines from entering the city. The Iraqis did not want to be seen going to the American military base, Camp Fallujah. To do so meant the risk of being branded as a traitor by fellow Fallujans, and probably killed. The FLT became a neutral zone and a safe place where they could do business with the Americans. It was an odd concept as the 1st Marine Division Civil Affairs group ran the FLT, but it seemed to works for the Iraqis.

Each day, the gates to the FLT would open to eager Iraqis seeking meetings with our team of Marines and the Navy Seabees. The team was an interesting group. We were all reservist. The Marines were from our civil affairs group (CAG) while the Seabees comprised reservist selected for their civilian background in infrastructure and contract management. We not only helped identify work that would qualify for reconstruction efforts, we also instructed the locals in writing proposals, setting up contracting documents, and generally trying to be the good neighbor. We were the “better friend” part of General Mattis’s “No better friend, no worse enemy” mantra.

A typical day started with the civil affairs team convoy arriving from Camp Fallujah. With cups of coffee in hand, we would review our actions for the day. We reviewed the ongoing improvements being made to the compound by Seabees and Iraqis. We would then review the actions for each team working at the FLT. Our legal team would pay claims to victims of the recent fighting. Expected claims could range from sheep that quit breeding because of gunfire, to the loss of homes and businesses from the recent fighting. The engineer team would continue to meet with contractors, plan to repair projects with engineers from the city, and accept bids for projects. Our security team would continue to register new Fallujah Brigade members recruited as part of our truce agreement to patrol the streets of the city. I would review the list of VIPs that could range from the flag officers from US and Allied forces, local sheiks and other influential Iraqis. My list also included reporters and historians recording our actions. Finally, we would talk about how to deal with the cast of characters that always seem to show up throughout the day.

Around 08:30, the flood of visitors would start. The FLT compound went from empty to full in a matter of seconds. On one side of the compound we would have 50–60 young men in uniform waiting to be screened, along the other would be a crowd of contractors all straining to see the bulletin board where request for bids were posted. In the breezeway would be older men, sometimes with sons, waiting to collect claims. Through all this would swarm Seabees’ construction teams with young Iraqi apprentices in tow. Part of our outreach training program. In the small courtyard, a five-man crew of Iraqi craft workers were building a fountain that never seem to be done. And, on most days, through the gate, would come the mayor of Fallujah with his entourage to discuss issues and complaints voiced by his citizens. By 10:30 and we would be at the height of the Arab business hour.

At this point, the FLT was controlled chaos. I would look around at the mass of people hearing the melodic sound of the Arabic language and the halting translations of our interpreters flow across the compound and could see the press of contractors around our poor contracting officer in the heat of the early morning desert sun. I wonder how we were getting anything done. We were drowning in a sea of Iraqis, struggling to keep up with all that they needed or wanted us to do. With every translator taken, I would use hand and arm gestures to move visitors around. I can remember moving an older man to an empty seat. I apologized for making him wait, but all he did was smile back and sit. He was not American, but Iraqi, and he knew how to wait. He was just happy that someone will take care of his problem. A new concept in a country recently ruled by an uncaring and brutal dictatorship.

Visits by VIPs added to our workload and my job was to minimize the impact of their arrival on my team. The 1st Marine Division Commander, General Mattis, was a regular. He recognized the value the FLT provided to his goal of rebuilding in Al Anbar. He would use the FLT, a neutral location, to hold a weekly meeting with the head of the Fallujah Security forces. The Iraqi leader was a trim and distinguished-looking gentleman who was very capable. There was mutual respect between the two. I would guide them to our small conference room where the two generals, one American one Iraqi, would shake hands, sit together and work to hold a tenuous peace in a very unpeaceful place. Leaving the generals to do their work, I would step out into the compound. Besides everything else, our courtyard would now have armed guards scattered about. Amongst it, the fountain builders would continue, unfazed. It was a zoo.

Members of the Fallujah Liaison Team (Photo by author, June 2004)

Then, as suddenly as it started, we would be done. The checkpoint was empty. The Arab working day ended early afternoon, with the heat evaporating the crowds like water in a shallow pan. General Mattis would finish his meeting and swing up on to his armored vehicle. With a mischief smile, he would give me instructions to make the FLT look like Yosemite National Park entrance. Being the only civil engineer on the General’s staff could be a burden. The other VIPs would go, leaving only a few diehard Iraqi contractors to badger our contracting staff. It is too hot to do much at the point. One by one, as they shed themselves of their last Iraqi patrons, the team members would slide into the cool darkness of the conference room to catch their breath. I would step into the shade of the walkway and pull out a cigar. It was my one allowed vice. The lit cigar was my signal to the team that one more day had passed working with the Iraqis in peace.

I didn’t know how long the FLT would remain open. It could close tomorrow with a hail of gunfire down the road in Fallujah, or it could remain open for business until we depart a peaceful land. The tiny compound with the strange name was our symbol of our efforts in 2004. For peace and a fair government to take place, you needed a bond with the Iraqis. History would judge our success in doing that.



Jesse R. Barker

Retired these days but still working to improve myself. An avid photographer I am always learning to look at the world in new ways while telling a good story.