RAMADI, IRAQ: The troops assigned to the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines call themselves the “Walking Dead,” but on this deployment, their missions have involved little killing – precious little combat at all, in fact. For the past seven months, the battalion has spent its first deployment to Iraq conducting operations worlds apart from what their predecessors in other wars saw – and worlds apart, too, from the operations that previous battalions conducted in Ramadi, the Anbari capital that was once the heart of the Sunni insurgency in this country.
Equally dramatic has been the reorganization of the unit for these new operations. The 1/9 advises Iraqi police units across a battlespace that an entire Army brigade once held down with difficulty. With its 45-man rifle platoons almost all broken down into 12-man adviser teams, the 1/9 Marines is almost unrecognizable as a traditional infantry battalion.
Two paths have converged in this deployment. The first is the path taken by the city of Ramadi, once one of the most contested cities in Iraq, to its current state of relative calm, with the security situation largely managed by Iraqi police units. The second is the path taken by 1/9 Marines, from its formal standup less than two years ago when the Marine Corps needed new battalions to sustain the brutal fight in Anbar, to its deployment as a radically reorganized advisory task force this past spring.
As recently as two years ago, the idea of deploying a Marine battalion to Ramadi in an advisory rather than a straight infantry capacity would have seemed unfathomable to many observers. To think that such a unit could control the volatile area then home to five full combat battalions would have seemed downright absurd. Then, Ramadi was home turf for al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group fueling sectarian violence in central Iraq; huge improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, made large portions of the city impassable to the beleaguered units deployed there, which suffered fatalities at least weekly.
Today, though, the scars left by heavy machine gun and M1 Abrams main gun rounds are the only reminder of what Ramadi once was – it is a city reborn. During its deployment, according to records kept by the battalion, the Marines of 1/9 have been engaged in fewer than 10 “troops in contact” incidents (cases in which troops and insurgents exchanged gunfire), and there have been barely a dozen IED attacks on the unit’s vehicles. Two Marines have been killed, both early in the tour – a far cry from the days in which Army brigades in Ramadi suffered 70 or 80 fatalities on a deployment.
The turnaround in Ramadi is not the work of 1/9 Marines. That credit belongs to the pair of US Army brigades and the Marine battalions attached to them, and an Iraqi Army brigade that painstakingly cleared the worst insurgent strongholds during the fierce fighting of summer 2006 and late winter 2007, and to the Iraqi policemen who, following the lead of Abdul Sattar al Rishawi and other local sheikhs, stood up to al-Qaeda en masse beginning in fall 2006.
What 1/9 has done is manage success. Since the departure of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division in April, the 1/9 alone has been responsible for a vast area of operations in and around Ramadi. The region is wrought with tribal and political tensions. The US command and Iraqi government have held up Ramadi as a model of success. That the battalion has in fact pushed progress forward and into the hands of the Iraqi police across the area is seen as an encouraging sign as Anbar heads toward both provincial elections and further U.S. troop withdrawals.
This fall, in Ramadi and the rural areas surrounding it, the Marines of 1/9 and its replacement battalion, 2/9, have essentially pulled back not only from daily counterinsurgency operations, but also from their daily advisory role – a reflection of the increasing confidence and efficacy of the Iraqi police units that patrol the city.
On a night last week that Marines here characterized as unusually eventful, the company in charge of the city itself, Weapons Company, 2/9 Marines, commanded by Captain Dallas Shaw, found itself following the trail of the police rather than of insurgents. After a rocket attack marred the calm of northeastern Ramadi, police units from three districts had shared intelligence and detained suspects by the time Marine based at nearby Camp Karama had arrived on the scene.
A hallmark of the conflict in Iraq, for the US military, has been the constant need to reorganize units in the country on an ad hoc basis, to adapt formations better suited for conventional combat to the requirements of counterinsurgency and advisory operations. The battalions that preceded 1/9 in Ramadi trained and organized for difficult urban combat of the kind the city saw daily for years. As violence dropped during 2007, the units were compelled to reorganize on the fly. By contrast, 1/9 reorganized as an advisory task force well before it deployed, and retained that organization for the bulk of the deployment as it maintained small teams of police advisers across the sector.
In reorganizing and preparing for the advisory mission, 1/9 Marines enjoyed several advantages over other deploying units, according to the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brett Bourne. To begin with, the battalion was effectively a blank slate, with no prior deployments to the old, violent Anbar fight to unduly influence its training.
As part of the Marine Corps’s expansion for the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, 1/9 began to form during 2006 and officially stood up as an active unit in April 2007, a year before it deployed to Ramadi. This, Bourne emphasized, gave the battalion almost a year to train for the mission, a significant boost over the seven months that most Marine battalions have between deployments in the “seven on, seven off” cycle of combat tours. After its training all autumn for basic combat skills, culminating in the Mojave Viper exercises at the end of 2007, the battalion still had all winter to make changes in its structure and planning.
After a pre-deployment “leaders’ recon” in December 2007, during which the 1/9 leadership learned that they would be replacing two full battalions, Bourne and his staff and commanders instituted a sweeping change, based on reorganizations that other units had been forced to conduct once in theater. In three of the battalion’s four companies, every rifle platoon was dissolved, and the resulting pool of Marines was divided into roughly 35 advisory detachments called Police Transition Teams (PTTs); one rifle company remained as a general reserve.
In a Marine Corps based around infantry formations, and particularly rifle platoons, this change was a drastic one, but Bourne dismisses the idea that the battalion’s basic infantry skills might suffer from it later – those, he says, are “muscle memory” for Marine units. True or not, 1/9’s pre-deployment reorganization into advisory teams has been a major step in the military’s adaption to new kinds of operations. The deployment of such a reorganized battalion to Ramadi, once the most dangerous infantry battleground in the country, signifies a major step in Anbar’s move from a province all but written off as lost to the Sunni insurgency, to a province under Iraqi control in fact as well as name.