"Ego Buster" was painted clearly on the side of an American tank that rumbled past the Fallujah police headquarters. Below the tank's name, its crew had painted a motto: "1-2 to the head," a reference to a devastating boxing punch combination.
The tank was part of a convoy of heavily armored U.S. infantry vehicles that was patrolling Fallujah while a handful of mostly Arab reporters milled about the center-city police station, asking officers to describe a "massacre" of 11 local policemen by American soldiers a few days before.
The Iraqi policemen, recruited and trained by the American military, were all too eager to speak. They are convinced the Americans deliberately set out to massacre their fellow officers.
The actual facts of the incident are still murky, but not completely in dispute.
Very early in the morning of Friday, September 12, a BMW pulled up in front of the center-city police station in Fallujah and its occupants opened fire on the building. Several police vehicles took up the chase, which led them out of town and straight into an improvised American roadblock in front of the Jordanian government's hospital.
Moments before, the Americans had reportedly come under fire from a rocket-propelled grenade. The subsequent approach of several speeding cars toward their already embattled position might have caused the soldiers to overreact.
For whatever reason, the Americans began shooting at the police, even though their vehicles were clearly marked and the policemen reportedly shouted their identities to the soldiers. The police vehicles were forced off the road and the Americans continued shooting for several minutes, killing eight on the spot and wounding many more. Western journalists who arrived on the scene shortly after the shooting claimed there was no evidence that the Iraqis had fired back. Hundreds of spent bullet casings were found near the American positions, but none was found near the police vehicles.
During the firefight, the Americans also fired on a hospital building that was being used as a dormitory for doctors and other staff. A guard, stationed on the roof of the building, was killed. The building itself sustained enormous damage.
By Sunday, the Fallujah police had developed an elaborate conspiracy theory to explain the shootings. The Americans, they said, were angry with them because they had refused to provide patrols to a road heavily traveled by U.S. troops. The BMW occupants, they claimed, were most likely either Americans or American sympathizers who led the police into an ambush.
Even more ominously, several injured police officers being treated at the Fallujah Hospital claimed they witnessed an "Egyptian" in American uniform shoot two wounded police officers at point-blank range after the battle finally ended.
The Americans, of course, flatly deny there was any ambush or that wounded police officers were murdered. And an Iraqi physician, Dr. Diaa Aljumady, a resident at the Fallujah Hospital who rushed to the scene after the one-sided battle had begun, said he spotted the "Egyptian" walking through the ranks of the wounded, but said he neither saw nor heard any gunshots.
But facts have never mattered much in Iraqi culture. News is spread mostly by word of mouth, with tribal elders and Muslim clerics often acting as de facto editors, and even purveyors. If the town leaders believe the Fallujah police were ambushed and that some of their wounded officers were murdered by an "Egyptian," then it is so.
The Americans didn't do their side much good in this case, either. A full 36 hours after the shooting, while the police were conducting an angry mass funeral for 10 of their dead comrades, the American military would only admit killing the one Jordanian.
By Sunday, though, the Americans were using the local Fallujah radio station to broadcast an apology for the deaths of the policemen. But at that point, it was too little, too late. The long, inexplicable American silence had allowed local opinion to harden against them.
Critically short of experienced military police, the Americans have been forced to rely mostly on infantry soldiers to patrol Iraqi streets.
The infantry is trained for full-scale war. Infantry soldiers are taught to meet any force, or any threat of force, with overwhelming counter-force. This mindset wins wars, as proved once again by the rapid defeat of the Iraqi military during the April invasion. But it poses a huge problem during post-war peacekeeping, as demonstrated in Fallujah on September 12 - and in late April, when the infantry fired on a large crowd of Fallujah protesters, killing 13 unarmed civilians.
A midnight ride-along with the 233rd Military Police Company through some of the meanest streets of Baghdad highlighted the dramatic tactical differences between trained military police and infantry patrols. The 233rd, a National Guard detachment based in Springfield, Illinois, seems to be functioning quite well despite its dangerous assignment.
"The infantry would have lit him up," said a member of the 233rd during the patrol. The MP was referring to a night not long ago when an Iraqi teenager aimed a red laser pointer at his face. "I found him in three seconds," the soldier said. The teenager was immediately determined to be non-hostile, so he was given a stern warning and let go.
The differences between MPs and the "shoot first, ask questions later" infantry came up repeatedly during the all-night patrol. The MPs, the soldiers said, are trained to clearly identify a threat before opening fire. And they are warned against firing back if it could injure any innocent bystanders. The infantry, they claimed, is just not suited to the task of policing.
Late that night, the MPs were driving up the "wrong" side of a four-lane boulevard when a dark-colored van came speeding toward them from around a curve. The van driver, perhaps blinded by the oncoming headlights, did not stop immediately, but slammed on his brakes shortly before slamming into one of the MPs' two Hummers.
The tension was high during the split second when it appeared a head-on collision was imminent, but the MPs calmly exited their vehicles, politely ordered the man out of his van, gently frisked him, quickly searched his car, asked why he was out after the 11 p.m. curfew, then sent him on his way with smiles on their faces.
Asked later what would have happened to the man if he had almost smashed into an infantry patrol, one of the MPs said the Iraqi probably would have been killed.
Unlike Fallujah, the 233rd has developed a strong, even warm relationship with the local Iraqi police. The MPs have provided constant training, oversight, and advice, helped them protect their station against terrorist attacks, and have even helped them set up an internal-affairs division.
And the 233rd has done all this despite the constant assault on their morale by the Department of Defense. These are part-time soldiers, remember, and they were supposed to be home by now. But their return date has been continually pushed back. Just weeks after being finally being given a December 7 pullout date, for example, the MPs were informed that they would most likely be in Iraq until next April.
Even though they patrol a high-crime neighborhood populated with illegal-arms merchants and known Saddam Hussein sympathizers, the all-night patrol encountered no significant problems on the night I was with them.
If you're looking for some good news in Iraq, the 233rd looks to be it. The bad news is there aren't a lot more soldiers like them over here.