Colonel Stephen W. Davis is the regimental commander of Regimental Combat Team -2, 2nd Marine Division, serving in AO Danger in Western Iraqi. His area of operation is comprised of the Qaim Region on the Syrian Border to the Triad cities of Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana, as well as Rutbah, Anah, and Khan Al Baghdadi. I embedded with RCT-2 from November 26 to December 17th of 2005.
Colonel Davis has commanded numerous operations in western Anbar, including Matador, Sword, Iron Fist, River Gate, Steel Curtain, Western Shield and a summer blitz that took a devastating toll on al Qaeda in Iraq’s network in the region. Colonel Davis will soon be transferring command to Colonel Blake Crowe and Regimental Combat Team – 7, the unit in charge of the region prior to RCT-2. The transcript below is from an interview conducted this afternoon (February 19, 2005).
Colonel Davis: The operations prior to your arrival in Iraq – Iron Fist River Gate and Steel Curtain – set up an interesting period of success. We created a security environment that is unprecedented in our time in Iraq. Because of this, areas like Hit had an enormous turnout during the December election – from zero voters during the Constitutional Referendum to 72,000 voters during the Parliamentary Election.
There are great signs of progress in the area of services. We are setting up permanent power generation which allows for clean water. We are setting up educational and medical facilities, services which were destroyed by the insurgency during fighting.
Two weeks ago I was in Husaybah, and walked all the way down Market Street. You couldn’t do this a few months ago. The markets were packed with foods, fruits & vegetables, electronics and other goods. And not just the main streets, but the side streets as well.
A similar situation is developing in the Triad, but they are a little behind in that region. Recently we’ve seen an increase in IEDs, small arms attacks and five suicide bombers. The security situation is cyclical, the insurgents are always probing, trying to fill the space where they think you are not.
Bill: Several officers have told me about al Qaeda “hit squads” – small teams of 6 to 12 foreign fighters, well armed, well trained in small squad tactics. They have new weapons, body armor, often wear suicide vests and have lots of money – in American dollars . They are accompanied by Iraqi “scouts” – locals with knowledge of the region and often act as the driver. Their mission is to stir up trouble, put civilians in the crossfire and evoke a over-reaction from Coalition forces. Can you confirm their existence?
Colonel Davis: There are three levels to the insurgency we are fighting out here: the criminal element; the FREs- or former regime elements made up of Baathists and Saddam’s military and intelligence officers; and the foreign fighters and Islamists. This [Western Anbar] is strategic territory for them and they need to come through Syria and transit through the Triad region [Haditha, Haqlaniyah & Barwana]. The Triad is strategically important to them and they are constantly trying to establish a presence.
They attack in small groups such as this to stir up trouble. Back in the summer, in the town of Cykla, a small farming town a few clicks [kilometers] north of Haditha, our Marines engaged a unit of eleven. The fight soon turned into a company sized action. In January, in the town of Sadah, we ran into a team of six to eight Libyans. This is nothing new for us out here, we have been fighting these engagements for some time.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has nothing to offer the Iraqi people. The people know this, but fear al Qaeda too. We see that the residents understand this, and they offer us information at every opportunity they think al Qaeda isn’t looking. We see red-on-red fighting because of this – tribes fighting al Qaeda, insurgent groups fighting al Qaeda. The people know if al Qaeda run the territories then they are in for a long road ahead.
Bill: During your Pentagon News Briefing on February 10th, you mentioned three or four towns where you’d like to deploy more troops. Can you elaborate on which towns you would like to increase the Coalition & Iraqi Army presence?
Colonel Davis: Sure can. I would like to have more Iraqi battalions in the Anah region, the Baghdadi region and Rutbah. The gives the RCTs the ability to shut down the flow of insurgent support and bring greater security and stability to the overall region, which paves the way for reconstruction.
But look at the progress we’ve made. Recently the insurgency was ensconced in the major population centers i n western Iraq – Husaybah, Hit Haditha and the Triad region. We were able to go in and establish a permanent presence in the major centers, and the insurgency is trying to grab a foothold in the rural farming regions.
Bill: Can you elaborate more on Rutbah? Recently you conducted Operation Western Shield in Rutbah and built a berm around the town. The media acted as if this was a new tactic, but this has occurred elsewhere in Iraq, including Samarra.
Colonel Davis: Rutbah is an interesting place, as it is an old smuggler’s town positioned on the edge of the Jordanian and Syrian borders. There is a crossing at Tribil on the Jordanian border, and At Tanif on the Syria crossing. This city did not have adequate Iraqi forces. We put a berm around the city, which is a tactic that has been used elsewhere in Iraq and established security checkpoints manned by Iraq troops to control the flow of insurgents into the city. We’ve increased the security and the people are happy for this.
Bill: Are foreign fighters making an effort to make Rutbah the main point of entry into Iraq? Are they crossing at the Syrian or Jordanian border, or both?
Colonel Davis: One doesn’t get the nod over the other. Any point of entry will get traffic and they will try to cross where they think they can. You have to be vigilant at the borders, at all times. The Jordanians run a great border operation, we don’t see corruption or other problems. They run an impressive operation. [Note from Bill: notice the Syrian border operation is omitted.]
Bill: I know Hit is out of your area of operations, but you controlled Hit in the past. What is your opinion about what is going on there?
Colonel Davis: Hit has changed owners several times over the past few month. We owned Hit up until the end of the Summer, then the 13th MEU took over, and now the 22nd MEU owns Hit. Continuity greatly helps the security situation. I was in Hit about two weeks ago, and the Marine Civil Affairs group is working hard. Things go in cycles out here, as the insurgency is always probing. Threats in the Euphrates River Valley are transitory. Groups might move in from Ramadi for a bit and stir things up, then they’re gone. The locals know who they are and let us know.
Ramadi is another challenge. The Marines, soldiers and sailors serving there are doing a great job in a difficult security situation. The key is not to let up or in diminishing the security structure.
We need to continue to bring along the Iraqi Army and Iraqi police forces. The units on the borders are doing a good job, they are competent. I have two brigades of Iraqi Army out here, and several hundred recruit just left for police training. We are gaining support from the tribal sheikhs as well.
Bill: I know the battalions in Iraq with RCT-2 are not organic your regiment, but do you have a feel for reenlistment rates?
Colonel Davis: I don’t have the rates by battalion, but throughout RCT-2 and the 2nd Marine Division the reenlistments are well over 100%. We have had no problems with reenlistments, they have not been a concern either in Iraq or at home. Since 1976 we have had an all volunteer military and our men and women serve with honor. The courage they display here in Iraq is stunning. They wake up each morning and face death, and every day go on their mission, walk patrols, run convoys, interact with the Iraqi people. They are professionals we all should be proud of.
Note from Bill: Many thanks to Colonel Davis for granting this interview and others, and for the hospitality from RCT-2 during my embed in Western Iraq.
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