- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2006

NEW UBAYDI, Iraq

The political debate over Iraq is focused increasingly on when and how to get American forces out of the country and back to the United States. But on Iraq’s border with Syria, U.S. Marines have reopened the military debate over how they can defeat the insurgency.

In the fall, the Marines swept through Qaim, a cluster of towns and villages along the Euphrates River, and wrested control from insurgent groups dominated by foreign jihadists.

Over the years and throughout Iraq, the Americans have followed up similar tactical successes by returning to large bases miles from the nearest major town. That distance from the towns and their people allowed insurgents to return and regroup.

In Qaim, Marines under Lt. Col. Julian D. Alford consolidated their position by spreading out, instead, to a dozen small bases inside towns and along major roads. The Marines’ constant presence among the civilian population has helped the Americans keep insurgents from re-establishing a large-scale presence in the area.

“You can’t give these guys sanctuary, and that’s what the big battalion [base] does,” said Col. Alford’s successor, Lt. Col. Nick Marano. “Wherever you’re not, that’s where they are.”

The assumption in most of Iraq is that a constant U.S. presence in Iraqi population centers fuels the insurgency and increases American casualties, but at Qaim, the result has been the opposite.

A ‘model’ for troops

Lt. Jon McClellan, who was sent to the area before the battle positions were established and returned this year, described a striking difference.

“You walked out in town, you’d get an IED or shot at or something,” he said of his Iraq deployment. “Now you can go have tea on Market Street.”

Col. W. Blake Crowe, who commands the Marines in western Anbar province, called Qaim “the model for where they want us to go.”

New counterinsurgency strategies seemed irrelevant early this year as speculation mounted that the U.S. military would begin substantial troop withdrawals. But the insurgency has proved its resilience in Ramadi, and an additional brigade is on its way to reinforce the Americans in western Iraq.

At Qaim, the Marines are expanding a tactic they think is working. Targeting an area the Marines say is a staging ground for attacks on Qaim’s larger towns, Col. Marano moves men into small villages that are seeing a U.S. military presence for the first time.

Capt. Greg Jones, who commands a company of Marines in eastern Qaim, said the insurgent response — a string of attacks with rockets and improvised explosive devices (IEDs ), such as car bombs — meant he and his men were looking in the right place.

Americans seek contact

“In my opinion, are the hard-core guys out here? Yes. That’s where we’ve been shot at, that’s where we’ve been IED’d,” he said.

“The increase in activity definitely spiked with us starting to move out there,” Col. Marano said.

Col. Marano said he expects the violence to decline as the Marines settle into the same routine of patrols and engagement with Iraqis that they use in the rest of the area. More than three-quarters of the battalion’s Marines live in battle positions named for historical Marine Corps engagements such as Iwo Jima and Tripoli.

At most large U.S. bases in Iraq, the view is either of a wall or of desert stretching off in all directions. Lt. Ritch Cannici’s battle position provides a virtually unobstructed view of the town of Sadah.

“I was here last year, and the battalion was at al Qaim,” said the 26-year old New Jersey native. He said that without a constant presence in the area, the battalion was unable to keep out insurgents.

Now his Marines are among the people of Sadah the moment they leave the base. They move through town on foot or in Humvees several times a day.

Making friends

“We have a presence out in the zone the majority of the day,” he said. “All day and night.” Insurgents still operate in the area, but they have not entrenched and posed the constant threat seen last year.

“There’s no space for insurgents to come back in and set up any kind of coordinated attack,” Lt. Cannici said. “It’s all hasty work.” He said his men, who divide the town so the same Marines patrol the same areas regularly, have become acquainted with the Iraqis who live and work along their routes. He said they had learned which Iraqis won’t help the Americans and to whom they can go for information.

“After a few weeks patrolling the zone, you make some friends,” he said.

In the small towns and rural areas of eastern Qaim, residents are quick to notice anything out of the ordinary. The Marines are trying to use that to their advantage.

“We’re trying to get them to think more like policemen on the beat,” said Ralph Morten, a Los Angeles Police Department detective who spent several months advising Col. Marano’s Marines.

Police tactics adopted

Looking for small changes in relatively peaceful neighborhoods is second nature to policemen, but this comes less easily to men trained for combat. Detective Morten also stressed the importance of a calm approach in questioning civilians, treating everyday interactions as conversations rather than interrogations.

“What Ralph has done is ask, ‘What do you look for as far as what is suspicious?’” said Capt. Todd Pillo, 30, the battalion intelligence officer. “How do you talk to individuals, how do you do tactical questioning, all that stuff a cop on the beat, a street cop, would do.”

Capt. Pillo, who was in Qaim in 2004, said that during his previous deployment, practically all Marine intelligence was garnered from insurgency suspects detained by the battalion.

“We were always finding dead people with their heads cut off — just shot in the back, shot in the head,” Capt. Pillo said. “If [insurgents] even thought you were remotely involved with helping the Americans, you were getting killed. So nobody talked to us.”

Now, he said, about 80 percent of the intelligence he obtains comes from Marine conversations with Iraqi civilians.

Goal is security

Capt. Jones, echoing other Marines, said he doesn’t think the U.S. military can eliminate the insurgency. In Qaim, one Marine battalion cannot maintain a constant presence in the towns and simultaneously secure the highway that runs through Capt. Jones’ expanded area of responsibility.

“The Marines are out a lot,” he said, “but the amount of time they’re on that stretch of road isn’t going to deter [insurgents].”

The goal, however, is not to crush the insurgency but rather to hand over responsibility for fighting it to Iraqi government forces. Keeping down the level of violence is necessary for recruiting and training Iraqis as a counterinsurgency force.

“That’s what we’re looking at. Keep the area secure enough,” Capt. Jones said. “As long as the insurgency is at that level, I think the [Iraqi police and army] will be fine.”

Marines here differ over whether the strategy could work elsewhere in Iraq. At Qaim, the insurgency became dominated by foreign fighters, whose brutality and imposition of conservative Islam alienated powerful local sheiks. In places where the insurgency enjoys more local support or where, as in Ramadi, the insurgency is strong enough to terrorize and assassinate local leaders, putting Americans in direct contact with Iraqi civilians may be impossible.

In any case, some say, the kind of large-scale offensive that paved the way for smaller bases in Qaim would be hugely destructive and bloody in Ramadi, a city of 400,000 people. Allowing the city to fester may be the only political option for both the Bush administration and the new Iraqi government.

It may be that the United States has found a viable counterinsurgency strategy, but found it too late.

“I personally think it would work in Ramadi,” Col. Marano said. “It would take a lot more, but I think the concept is valid.”


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