Steel Curtain Unmasked

AL QAIM: The western branch of the Euphrates River, what is know as the Al Qa’im region, which spans from Husaybah on the Syrian border to the town of Ubaydi, at a heart-shaped bend in the river, has long been a haven for al Qaeda and the insurgency. While the problem was well known, for some time the right mix of forces was not available to address the problem.

Until these forces were on hand, the Coalition conducted a series of raids to keep the insurgents off balance and from gaining too strong a foothold in the region. Operations Matador, Spear, Quick Strike and a host of others are examples of such targeted strikes. Many insurgent and al Qaeda commanders and foot soldiers were killed in these attacks, but until the Coalition could muster the forces to stay in the towns, their impact was limited.

The inclusion of Iraqi forces has been seen as vital to the efforts. These forces would have the knowledge of the local customs and language, as well as the ability to discern between domestic and foreign fighters.

The development and deployment of the Iraqi forces in the peaceful provinces of Iraq has also freed up U.S. Forces to conduct combat operations in Anbar province. As Iraqi units took responsibility for security in the Shiite and Kurdish regions, as well as in Baghdad, excess U.S. Forces became available to clean out the rat’s nests along the Euphrates River. What was a limited Coalition presence in the Al Qa’im region in March of 2005 has now transformed into a major presence of Coalition forces, and allowed for the successful execution of Operation Steel Curtain.

*Battle Plan for Steel Curtain*

The roots of the operation trace back to the beginning of October, during Iron Fist and River Gate. Iron Fist, which was directed at the small town of Sa’dah, was actually a diversion, designed to catch the attention of the insurgents along the Euphrates River and distract them from the real blow to be delivered, which was River Gate in Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana.

Iron Fist was so well received by the local population of Sa’dah that Coalition forces set up Battle Positions in the town and pressed the fight to western Karabilah, where they halted at the “Emerald Wadi” , a dried up riverbed separating the towns. A month’s worth of exchanges occurred between Marines in Sa’dah and the insurgents in Karabilah’s “Shark’s Fin” , a neighborhood intelligence indicated contained a high concentration of fighters. According to Major Patterson, the Executive Officer of the 3/6, “an estimated two hundred enemy KIA [killed in action] and untold numbers of wounded” were inflicted in the time between Iron Fist and Steel Curtain.

When Steel Curtain kicked off on November 5th, the Marines had another trick in store for the insurgents. Prior attacks occurred from the east, and the insurgents expected this attack to come from that direction as well, this time from outposts in Sa’dah. Instead, the Marines of the 3/6 and the 2/1, and the 1/1/1 of the Iraqi Army, swung from Camp Al Qa’im across the desert west towards the Syrian Border, positioned their forces, and struck at Husaybah from the West.

The “440 district” , a neighborhood in the southwest of Husaybah, was hit first by the Marines of the 2/1. Then, the southern neighborhoods of Husaybah were the next target, followed shortly afterward by the northern portion of the city, which was the responsibility of the Marines of the 3/6. The farming districts north along the river were cleared by the soldiers of the 3/504 Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne. The soldiers of the 4/14 Strykers out of Rawah patrolled the northern banks of the Euphrates to seal off escape routes to the north.

The 2/1 and the 3/6 met moderate to intense fighting in Husaybah, and continued the push to Karabilah, where little resistance was met. The assault force halted when it reached the “Shark’s Fin” , and units from the 3/6 swung north of the neighborhood and pressed south. Numerous IEDs, weapons caches and homes rigged as bombs were discovered in Husaybah and Karabilah, and over fifty insurgents were killed during this phase of the operation.

After Karabilah was cleared, 3/6 held the ground and immediately began counter-insurgency operations and back-clearing of the cities. The Marines of the 2/1 and the soldiers from the 3/504 PIR swung west to strike at Ubaydi. Here is where the terrorists made their stand, and inflicted heavy casualties on the Marines of the 2/1.

Ubaydi is split into two sections, Old Ubaydi, which is a traditional river farming village, and New Ubaydi, a modern housing complex. The soldiers 3/504 cleared Old Ubaydi, while the Marines of the 2/1 struck at New Ubaydi, where the bulk of the heavy fighting occurred. The tight packed housing made for ideal fighting conditions for the defending force of insurgents. Eight Marines, including a company commander and a platoon commander, were killed in a well laid trap. The 2/1 took sixteen casualties in the fight.

Throughout the operation, the 1/1/1 of the Iraqi Army and the Desert Protection Force worked in conjunction with the U.S. Forces, and proved to be an instrumental part of the operation. The Iraqi Army battalion participated in combat operations, and they and Desert Protectors were able to identify foreign fighters and local insurgents.

*After the Fight*

What was previously a limited presence at Camp Al Qa’im and Camp Gannon has now branched out to an expanded presence throughout the Al Qa’im region. The Marines of the 2/1 and most of 1st LAR, and the Soldiers of the 3/504 PIR have moved elsewhere, but the Marines of the 3/6 and a company from 1st LAR remain on hand in the Al Qa’im Region, along with two battalion of the Iraqi Army (1-1-1 and 2-1-1).

These forces jointly man the forward operating bases, known as “Battle Positions” or BPs, throughout the region. Elements of Lima Company are in two BPs around Husaybah (BPs Hue City and Beirut); India Company maintains a BP in Karabilah (BP Tarwara); Kilo Company maintains two BPs in Sa’dah (Iwo Jima and Chosin); a company from 1st LAR (Light Armored Reconnaissance) is in Al Qa’im; and Whiskey company maintains three BPs in Ubaydi. They continue to patrol the region and conduct counterinsurgency operations to root out remaining cells and prevent the re-infiltration of insurgent forces.

The 3/6 is still encountering IEDs in the region, particularly in the Shark’s Fin of Karabilah, where it is believed new IEDs are being placed along the roads. The month’s worth of fighting in the interval between Iron Fist and Steel Curtain has build up some animosity among the locals, who were sympathetic to al Qaeda and the insurgency to begin with.

The Coalition is working to shift an emphasis from intense combat operations in the region towards reconstruction as well as empowering the local Iraqis to assume control of local police forces and services. The Coalition is constantly meeting with tribal leaders and are working to improve ties with the local population.

The fight to secure the region in Steel Curtain is easy by comparison to the task at hand, which Colonel Stephen Davis, the Commander of Regimental Combat Team 2, refers to as “managing the problem.” This will require a long term presence in the region to bring along the nascent Iraqi Army and coach the local Iraqi government, lest we cede control of the region to Zarqawi’s minions and squander the sacrifices made by the Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought, bled and died during the year’s struggle in Western Iraq.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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