- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

It is the deadliest province in Iraq per capita, an expanse of desert, small towns and the rich Euphrates River that combine to attract some of the worst of America’s enemies, the kind that 2nd Marine Division troops were hunting Nov. 19 when things went terribly wrong in Haditha.

Sunnis loyal to Saddam Hussein quickly staked out Anbar province’s biggest cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, as garrisons against the rule of the U.S.-led coalition that toppled Saddam.

Foreign suicide bombers then discovered the isolation of the place, suitable to establish “rat lines” from Syria, down the river and into Baghdad, where they got their assignments for mass murder.

Anbar’s Sunni Muslim residents mostly have been hospitable to these bands of jihadis led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was killed Wednesday in a U.S. air strike in Diyala province. The locals provided the terrorists with a garage or spare bedroom to hide and make their bombs, and to lay in wait for patrolling Marines.

Now some residents accuse Marines of deliberately killing 24 civilians — men, women and children — in cold blood.

Marines of the 1st and 2nd Marine Expeditionary Forces, which alternate seven-month stays, head out daily into towns such as Husaybah, New Ubaydi and Haditha. Press releases from the U.S. command in Baghdad routinely include a brief two paragraphs on another Marine in Anbar falling to an improvised explosive device (IED).

“Imagine the gall and the fortitude of an enemy that is willing to blow up their own children to kill or even discredit you,” said retired Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano, who led his platoon on scores of raids in Anbar in 2004 before the Marines accused him of murder in the deaths of two insurgents.

Lt. Pantano was exonerated by an investigative officer, resigned from the Corps and has published a book on his ordeal, “Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy.”

The town of Haditha, one of Anbar’s rat-line stops, was the site of what is now a well-publicized Marine patrol Nov. 19 by squads of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment. Their mission: “persistent presence” to make Anbar safe for the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

The Marines grimaced as another comrade died when an IED exploded under his armored vehicle. Hours later, after a battalion counterattack, 24 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, lay dead.

A criminal investigation by the military that could lead to capital murder charges against one or more Marines is expected to be completed in August. A source close to the investigation said that, if Marines are charged, defense attorneys will cite Anbar’s hostile environment and the chaos of door-to-door raids.

But U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq, has imposed strict rules of engagement designed to protect noncombatants from the kind of atrocity that may have occurred in Haditha. Each Marine repeatedly is reminded before and during deployments about protecting noncombatants.

Rules state troops may use lethal force only if the enemy displays a hostile act or hostile intent. But at the unit level, what is “hostile” can fall into a gray area.

A Marine officer who served in Anbar said some commanders allowed Marines to shoot to kill someone suspected of planting an IED. Others did not.

“Marines today have to fill out more paperwork and statements after they use force than cops on the streets of Philadelphia,” the officer said.

Lt. Pantano said Anbar stands out among Iraq’s 18 provinces on two counts: It has the largest concentration of Sunnis, the sect Saddam identified with, and is the area most opposed to democratic rule.

Saddam poured into the province figures from his regime as well as the feared Fedayeen to bolster Anbar’s southeast corner (the so-called Triangle of Death) that protects Baghdad from an invasion from Kuwait. Anbar also is a crisscross of barren canals and back roads, perfect conduits to move insurgents from Point A to Point B without being detected by Marines.

“There is no way to shut off the rat lines,” Lt. Pantano said, unless the Pentagon increases the number of Marines from the current 20,000. The Pentagon says it is augmenting the force with Iraqi army soldiers and police.

Lt. Pantano tells anecdotes to underscore the insurgents’ ruthlessness and commitment.

In June 2004, Marines planned the ceremonial reopening of a school following a $40,000 renovation. The night before, troops armed with flashlights scoured the perimeter. Sure enough, a planted IED was close enough to kill not only the Marines, but Iraqi children.

“This is an enemy that is so determined and so irrational by our standards they are willing to kill their own children,” Lt. Pantano said.

Anbar is one of the four most-dangerous provinces in Iraq. More than 80 percent of all insurgent attacks occur in Anbar, Baghdad, Salah ad Din and Diyala.

But by population, Anbar (1.5 million residents) is the most violent, registering 1.60 attacks daily for each 100,000 persons, according to the latest Pentagon figures. Overall, Anbar sees 22 attacks a day, second only to the more populous Baghdad (5.7 million residents), with 28 attacks.

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