Wednesday, May 04, 2005

New tactic

Chicago Tribune reported GIs launch new tactic against enemy fighters

While the idea to swarm enemy fighters is not new to the Marines in Iraq, it is rare that they do it fast enough for more than a few dozen Marines to shoot back at the fighters, let alone to surround the fast-moving insurgency. When the Americans shift forces into a town, it is usually only for a few days, and the action is so telegraphed that insurgents and foreign fighters can flee ahead of them. Because several smaller units near Haqlaniyah were ready for other missions April 20, nearly 200 troops from the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines were able to respond to the shootout there within the first hour. The troops remained in town for the next three days. When left Haqlaniyah on April 23, things appeared to have returned to normal. The locals had learned on several previous occasions that the Marines rarely stay.

But on April 26, about 500 Marines from 3/25 and other battalions suddenly returned to Haqlaniyah, a small town of about 5,000 on the Euphrates River. Not only were major roads sealed off, but so were the desert and surrounding villages. Troops began rolling into all of Haqlaniyah's neighborhoods almost at once, and stayed until early Sunday. Besides being able to actually shoot back at insurgents in the first phase, more than 40 arrests were made in the second phase, said battalion commander Lt. Col. Lionel Urquhart. Marine officials said the insurgents were apparently surprised the Marines had returned.

The first move in the new strategy for Anbar could not have begun in a more mundane way. Just after noon on April 20, two gunmen fired on a civil affairs patrol carrying repair proposals to schools in a neighboring town. A description was sent out of the shooters' getaway car, which Hanselman's patrol stumbled across south of Haqlaniyah. But the Americans quickly found themselves outnumbered by an insurgent counterattack that sent gunfire and rockets down on them from several homes on the edge of town. Another American platoon arrived to pin down the Iraqi gunmen, and then a fresh company of troops backed them up. By the time the fighting died down five hours later, hundreds of Marines from the 3/25 had poured in, supported by tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters.

"It's one of the first times they actually stayed and fought," said Staff Sgt. Michael Knittle, 35, of Wakeman, Ohio, who was in the initial firefight alongside Hanselman. Then came the pullout and the surprise return April 26, when hundreds more troops from battalions as far away as the Jordanian and Syrian borders sealed off Haqlaniyah, trapping insurgents and foreign fighters. "Insurgents typically run like rats on a sinking ship," said Maj. Steve White, the operations officer who directed the fight in Haqlaniyah. "This time, I don't think they realized the ship was sinking." The 3rd Battalion moved almost all of its forces in the area into town April 26 and sat there, hoping for insurgents to grow impatient and begin fighting again.

North of them, a company from the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, based in Al Qaim, seized the shops, neighborhood and pontoon bridge where the fight had begun a few days before. Across the river and on the outskirts of town, parts of the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, stationed on the border with Jordan, blocked off road junctions in the desert. The insurgents soon tried to fade into the populace. In the five-day operation that followed, there was sporadic gunfire each day, a suicide car bomber and roadside blasts. No Americans were killed, and along with the more than 40 detainees swept up in raids, Marines also netted bomb-making materials, documents and weapons.

Among the prisoners was a suspected former Iraqi special forces officer believed to be coordinating local insurgent attacks, and three Sudanese men who claimed to be sheep shearers, and who sat ramrod straight and refused offers of water from their Marine captors as others begged to be let go. The detainees were brought to regimental holding facilities each night by a squadron of Humvees directed by Cpl. Josh Smith, 23, of Poplarville, Miss. His mission orders were simple: "Keep your drivers awake." On April 31, Smith made his 11th late-night prisoner run to Al Asad air base, about an hour away across darkened roads.

Both the men and vehicles were dirty from days in the field, and scratched by roadside bomb blasts. They blared heavy metal music on jury-rigged speakers and called each other frequently on the radio to keep from falling asleep. Along with the prisoners, weapons and documents, there was another benefit of the Marines' operation. During the Friday call to prayers, an imam in town declared no love for the Marines, but then denounced the insurgents for picking fights with Americans that they didn't want to finish. Younger Marines excitedly passed the news about the imam. As White put it, "Out here, you take whatever you can get."

The operation netted suspects, weapons; no Americans killed. Keep up the good work!!!

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