This afternoon I conducted an interview with Colonel Stephen W. Davis, the Commander of Marine Regimental Combat Team – 2 currently operating in western Iraq and engaged in Operation Steel Curtain in the border town of Husaybah.
Bill: What is the current status of Operation Steel Curtain?
Col Davis: Husaybah has been cleared and secured. Coalition forces are now conducting combat patrols. Construction is underway for basing of Iraqi and U.S. troops to maintain a permanent presence in the city, and provide security. We had a real good plan, but the execution was even better. I am pleased with the results of Operation Steel Curtain.
Bill: Coalition forces are now stationed in Sa’dah in the east and Karabilah in the west. Have there been any overtures from the pro-al Qaeda Salmanis tribe in Karabilah, or do you expect them to fight it out to the end?
Col Davis: We have been in contact with the Albu Malha tribe only. There were not many civilians remaining in Husaybah, most left two months ago during the fighting between the rival tribes in the region.
Bill: MNF-West states there were 1,000 Iraqi troops involved, while CNN and other news outlets reports 550. Is there an explanation for this discrepancy?
Col Davis: The number is just a hair short of 1,000. There is one full battalion of Iraqi Army soldiers, one brigade headquarters unit, units from the Desert Protection Force, and a Special Operations Forces unit, which was trained by [U.S.] Army Green Berets. These SOF units are high caliber units with a great deal of expertise and bring it to the battlefield.
Bill: How is the Desert Protection Force organized and trained?
Col Davis: These are platoon sized units recruited locally and trained in reconnaissance and scout techniques. They add a level of granularity due to their experience and local knowledge of the region. They have been very, very helpful during Operation Steel Curtain.
Bill: Operation Steel Curtain was launched right on the border with Syria. Iraqi Defense Minister Dulaimi stated “up to 180 terrorists escaped from Husaybah” and fled to Syria. Is this accurate?
Col Davis: I have no information on this. We are pleased with our plan and its execution, and we feel we sealed up the operational area as well as one can be sealed. I don’t think a whole lot slipped out, but nothing is airtight.
Bill: Has there been any cross border pursuit of insurgents fleeing into Syria?
Col Davis: There have been no cross border operations while I have been out here. We respect the sovereignty of international borders.
Bill: Last time we spoke, we discussed the morale of the Americans serving under your command. Can you give us a feel for the morale of the Iraqi troops?
Col Davis: The morale of the Iraqi troops is high. We are very fortunate to work with these soldiers and to watch them grow. The 2nd Brigade, 7th Division of the Iraqi Army is operating in the Hit/Haditha region, and the 1st Brigade, 1st Division is operating out west on the Syrian border. One of the battalions was engaged in Fallujah and Ramadi. There are some tough and battle hardened soldiers in these units. I am fortunate to have these two brigades directly under my command.
I dine nightly with [Iraqi Army] Colonel Razak, and we discuss the progress of the Iraqi troops and their ability to conduct combat operations. These units operating out here have good morale and show a high degree of proficiency in combat. They are in need of logistics assistance from us. These guys fight hard; I’ve lost six Iraqi soldiers since they have been operating out here.
The Iraqi troops are extremely helpful when it comes to identifying insurgents and al Qaeda. For example, outside of the displaced persons camp set up for citizens of Husaybah, Iraqi troops of the 1/1 picked two Saudis and a Qatari out of the crowd who were dressed as women, then engaged and killed all three. This is but one example of their proficiency.
Bill: Leading up to the December elections, are the local residents showing signs of relief that the combined forces are going to maintain a permanent presence in their towns? Do you expect a positive impact towards voter turnout?
Col Davis: That’s a good question. I don’t know. We are gratified with what we achieved prior to the referendum during operation Iron Fist and River Gate. LtCol Alford successfully cleared Sa’dah of insurgents two weeks prior to the referendum. During the referendum, Sa’dah turned out 600-700 voters [note the town is estimated to have about 2,000 residents] when we thought there would be no votes. The Iraqi people hate, they absolutely despise al Qaeda. If and when they are satisfied there will be a sustained presence of Iraqi and U.S. troops, they will execute their right to vote.
We were surprised at the turnout results during the referendum in certain areas. Rutbah, Sa’dah and Barwana all turned high number of voters. Hit, Haditha and Baghdadi had low voter turnouts. I think the sheikhs surveyed the landscape made a strategic decision. They knew the referendum would pass, decided to keep their bona fidas with the insurgents and keep al Qaeda in Iraq from threatening. I think they felt they would be better off saving their clout for the upcoming election. This shows the real influence these sheikhs can have out here. Iraq is a very interesting place, as you will see when you get out here.
Bill: Does RCT-2 intend to immediately follow combat operation in Qusaybah with reconstruction operations, as was done recently in Tal Afar?
Col Davis: Right now we have about 900 residents of Husaybah being taken care of in a displaced persons facility set up just outside the city. We will make sure the city is secure and the services are up and running as quickly as possible. There needs to be a safe environment in the city. There wasn’t extensive damage within the city, but there are some homes that were used as safe houses that were destroyed.
The Desert Protection Force escorted residents out of harms way to the displaced persons facility, where they receive food, shelter and medical care. Word spreads pretty fast throughout the city and they came to the facility on their own. As in all of the cities and towns out here, once the citizens are free of the influence of the insurgents and are assured the Iraqi Army will remain, they open up and show us who has been supporting the insurgency, where they are hiding, lead us to ammunition dumps and safe houses and provide tips on what the insurgent have been saying and planning.