Patrolling with the Snake Eaters
On the streets with the Iraqi soldiers of the 3/3-1
KHALIDIYA, IRAQ: The Snake Eaters of the 3/3-1 are held in high esteem by the Marine and Army trainers at ASP Outpost. As with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division in Fallujah, the logistics and pay issues, along with a lack of heavy weapons, are what is holding the battalion back from operating without Coalition support. "This battalion can be independent if not for logistics," said Major Owen West, the commanding officer of the 3/3-1 Military Transition Team (or MTT). "We've pushed these guys as far as we can in the 7 months I've been here," said Army Sergeant First Class Andrew Himes, a senior NCO on the MTT. "They're ready."
The MTTs say Snake Eaters no longer use the patented "Iraqi death blossom," the undisciplined outburst of fire in all directions after being attacked. They still expend plenty of ammunition when attacked, but now focus it on the area of enemy fire. Major West explained how, during a night ambush, the ambush team poured plenty of lead on an insurgent team, killing one insurgent in the process. During a separate ambush, three insurgent were wounded.
In patrolling with the Snake Eaters for several days, their proficiency became readily apparent. The first night patrol, on Thursday, was through the streets of the "poisonous little town" of Sadiqiya. Lieutenant Mohammed led his platoon, 5 MTTs and me through the farmlands, palm groves and the narrow, dirty streets of this most dangerous town. It had rained the two days prior, and the water turned the Iraqi sands into a slick mud that makes walking in the dark quite a challenge. The lieutenant led the patrol as if it was a speed-march at times, but the Iraqi soldiers maintained security throughout. Lt. Mohammed and his soldiers searched several homes, and asked the owners information about insurgent activity. It was an uneventful three hours, with then ever-present baying dogs seeming like the greatest threat.
The following morning, the Snake Eaters, along with the MTTs conducted a cordon on a mosque in Sadaqiya. The mosque is well known for spewing hatred against the American and Iraqi forces, and the Iraqi Army had good intelligence several terrorists would be present in the mosque for Friday sermon. The Iraqi Army conceived, planned and executed the operation from beginning to end. They surrounded the mosque just before the sermon ended. As the men and women exited the mosque the Iraqis lined up the military age males.
The local informants who provided the intelligence for the raid were present, and donned masks to keep their identity secret. They picked the terrorists out from the lineup. Fourteen were arrested and sent up from the battalion to the brigade detention facility for further investigation. Three of those captured are believed to be very senior local al Qaeda leaders. No shots were fired during the entire operation, which lasted less than 2 hours.
Major Owen West & Alex the 'terp' gather data while questioning an Iraqi male in Khaladiya. Click image to view.
On Saturday, Major West informed LtCol Mohammed that a plan they had discussed the evening prior to deploy Iraqi soldiers inside of Khaladiya to live, and bait the enemy into a fight, was approved by higher up. This is part of "predator-prey relationship" Major West is working to instill into the Iraqis. The public, and the insurgents, need to see the Iraqi soldiers aren't afraid to take the fight to them and even live among them.
When Major West informed LtCol Mohammed the plan was a go, he was told the plan had already been executed. LtCol Mohammed had taken the initiative, and planned the operation and executed the mission. By 4 am local time, LtCol Mohammed had a group of scouts inside the city.
The Iraqi Army and the MTTs expected trouble that night, as the Iraqi Army incursion into the city was quite likely to stir the pot. They expected an insurgent attack on the Army outpost inside the city. In keeping with the predator-prey relationship, the Iraqi Army and MTTs devised a plan to put a presence in the city, and perhaps spring an attack on any insurgent party planning to hit the Army outpost.
Instead of moving out on Humvees, the Snake Eater's platoon of scouts, accompanied by 5 MTTS and myself, struck out on foot from the battalion base, which sits on a hill overlooking Khaladiya, and moved into the city. The patrol moved through the desert hills between the base and the town. This approach is dangerous, particularly during the day, as soldiers are silhouetted behind the sky when coming over the hills, perfect targets for the snipers in the area.
On the march into Khaladiya, we overheard four mortars fall into one of the bases in the distance. The mortars were blind fired and we were told they didn't hit a thing. The ever present semi-wild Iraqi dogs howled in the distance, and their howls grew louder as we approached and they shadowed our patrol. The insurgents couldn't ask for a better early warning system.
This group of Iraqi Army scouts were the most disciplined and tactically proficient Iraqi soldiers I have seen while accompanying Iraqi troops outside the wire. They moved sharply, covered dangerous intersections and rooftops, effectively used hand and arm signals, and maintained their intervals. The scouts clearly embraced the idea of the "predator-prey" relationship. On the streets of Khaladiya, they were the hunters.
The streets of Khaladiya were relatively busy for a nation at war, and particularly in Anbar province. Barbershops, corner stores, and vegetable stands were open. We encountered Iraqi men on the streets, and the scouts searched and questioned several. One ran away after being told to stop, and was chased down and caught by the Iraqi soldiers.
We marched through the back alleys and on the very dangerous Market and 20th streets, the latter of which is one of the most deadly heavily IED'd streets in Iraq. Neither 20th nor Market resembled the streets of the same name in my home city of Philadelphia
"If the muj won't hit you after the first 20 minutes, they're not going to do it," said Major West. After 20 minutes, the insurgents never fired a shot. We ended up on Route Michigan several hours later. We mounted up on Humvees waiting to pick us up, and knew the insurgency isn't as strong in Khaladiya as they wants the citizens to think it is.