The Coalition is preparing to assault the region of Qaim, on the western end of the Euphrates River. An unidentified Iraqi source states the date of the operation will not be advertised, and intimates the operation may already be underway; “Just as with our Tal Afar operation, D-Day is not announced until well after we go on in — and you can take it that D-Day [in Qaim] has either happened or is about to.”
Anna Badkhen from the San Francisco Chronicle has been reporting from the region, and states the towns of Husaybah, Ubaydi, Qaim, Sada, and Karabila are effectively under the control of al Qaeda. Residents are reporting al Qaeda has installed Shariah law and are executing “collaborators” and driving residents from their homes. Contained within Ms. Badkhen reports is some information on how the Marines are postured in the region. Outside of Ubaydi, Marines man an outpost.
For now, Marines maintain a permanent checkpoint about 1.5 miles south of the town and camp out at a desert outpost they call Battle Position Belleau Wood — a cluster of berms and shipping containers half-dug into ankle-deep fine dust and covered with sandbags and camouflage netting, surrounded by a 7-foot wall of dust and rocks. The outpost, which the Marines set up 12 days ago, is being shelled by mortars almost daily, Fischer said. “The job here is to just have the presence,” he said. Occasionally, the Marines launch what they call “presence patrols” near the town, to see what kind of firepower their enemy has.
Outside Sada and Karabila, Marines are also preparing fighting positions while acting as a blocking force and forward observers; “Marines from the 1st Mobile Assault Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment camped out Thursday on a moonless night in the desiccated expanse overlooking the towns, setting up mortar firing positions and keeping an eye for any insurgent movement inside the settlements.”
The operations over the past month in this region have been designed to strike at targets of opportunity, such as key leaders, congregating cells and weapons facilities and safe houses. The Coalition has been preparing the battlefield while assembling forces to conduct operations and occupy the region. The wildcard is the Iraqi Security Forces, as they will be instrumental in holding the territory once it has been taken. During a a press briefing, Major General Lynch discusses the Iraqi forces assigned to the Anbar Campaign, it appears two brigades (6 to 8 battalions) of the Iraqi Army are working with the Marines and Army units along the Euphrates; “Let’s talk about Al Anbar. Operations ongoing in the Euphrates River valley — Iraq security forces combined with the coalition forces. A brigade from the 7th Iraqi Army Division and a brigade from the Iraqi 1st Army Division are working shoulder to shoulder with coalition forces as we work our way in Euphrates River valley operations.”
It is unclear as to number of Iraqi Army troops, if any, are being assigned to the upcoming operation in Qaim. Iraqi Defense Minister Dulaimi indicated Iraqi troops would be put to work out west. To maintain control in the region after the operation, they will be required.
If the Qaim region is successfully taken and held, al Qaeda and the insurgency’s vital connection to support across the Syrian border will be in jeopardy. As noted by many commentors of this site, the act of clearing the towns of potential informants indicates a level of desperation by al Qaeda. By clearing the towns, they may be able to reduce the intelligence assets of the Coalition, making precision airstrikes difficult to execute. But there is propaganda value in keeping the residents in place. Those who have left cannot be used as human shields or hostages, and fewer civilians will mean fewer non-combatant casualties.
Al Qaeda has few good options. If they clear the town to reduce the Coalition’s intelligence capabilities, they lose the propaganda value of high numbers of dead Iraqis killed at the infidel (although it should be noted that the latest large scale engagement in Tal Afar yielded few civilian casualties, and Tal Afar is more densely populated than the towns along the Euphrates). If they run, they concede the strategic border crossing to the Coalition. Movement to another location is possible, but the Coalition is in the process of preparing the Euphrates valley for future strikes by establishing bases along the river. If they stand and fight, they will lose as they have in every open engagement at the platoon level or great since the beginning of the insurgency. Running from the Americans and the Iraqi Army doesn’t make for a good recruiting tool.
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