Patroling one of the two main arteries through the Fallujah region
The city of Fallujah and its surrounding environs has both a symbolic and strategic importance to the security of Iraq. Fallujah is the city where al Qaeda fought the U.S. forces toe-to-toe and lost. Fallujah is a rallying call to al Qaeda. The city also serves as the gateway to Baghdad, the end of the line of al Qaeda’s Syrian ratlines which are used to run foreign fighters, money and weapons into the capital.
Fallujah was where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi set up his first infamous Islamic Emirate in Iraq during the spring of 2004. In March of that year, al Qaeda in Iraq ambushed a Blackwater convoy on Fallujah’s North Bridge, and murdered, burned and hanged the bodies of Americans from the bridge, sparking the first assault on the city by U.S. Marines. President Bush halted the assault due to political pressures both at home and from Iraqi’s fledgling interim governing council.
Over the course of the summer and fall of 2004, the Fallujah Brigade, an Iraq National Guard unit created to secure the city, was massacred by al Qaeda in Iraq. The commander and other officers were either murdered or intimidated, and some of the members of the unit abandoned their posts out of fear or defected to al Qaeda. Zarqawi conducted a campaign of terror in Fallujah, and beheaded and tortured those who opposed him. When Fallujah was freed during Operation al-Fajr (Dawn) in November of 2004, numerous torture chambers were uncovered throughout the city.
The liberation of Fallujah was followed by a sweep of western Anbar province by the Coalition and Iraqi Army forces, which cleared al Qaeda and the insurgency from Husaybah on the Syrian border to Haditha, just west of Ramadi. The provincial capital of Ramadi was never cleared, and al Qaeda established a base of operations in the city. Ramadi remains an al Qaeda sanctuary to this day.
Because of the failure to deal with Ramadi, the Fallujah area of operations remains a ‘hot AO.’ The region is managed by Marine Regimental Combat Team – 5 and three brigades of the 1st Iraqi Army and local Iraqi police forces. RCT-5 and th Iraqi Army patrol the region from Ramadi to the west to Abu Ghraib in the east, and as far north as Lake Thar Thar and south as Amariyah. The region in and around Habbaniyah, which sits between Fallujah and Ramadi, is particularly dangerous.
In the Fallujah area of operations, each Iraqi Army brigade is paired up with a battalion of Marines. Also, there are Military and Police Transition Teams (MTTs/PPTs) embedded with the Iraqi formations.
The 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines is paired with the 4th Iraqi Army Brigade, and owns the region north of Fallujah, where both maintain forward operating bases (FOBs). The 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines is paired with the 3rd Iraqi Army Brigade, and owns the region east of Fallujah, including Habbaniyah.
The 1/24 Marine battlaion is paired with the 2nd Iraqi Army Brigade, and controls the city and the region to the east up to Abu Ghraib. In Fallujah proper, there is a company of Marines from the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines – about 300 Marines, along with a battalion of Iraqi Army (about 800 troops) and about 700 local police. After Operation al-Fajr, there were 1,500 Marines, 300 Iraqi troops and no police.
The region south of Fallujah is patrolled by the Marines of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, including the towns of Amaryiah and Ferris. The regiment also has three additional companies – B, 2nd Tank Battalion, B 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion and C, 1st Combat Engineer Battalion – and an artillery battery – I, 3/12 stationed out of Camp Fallujah, which sits on the outskirts east of Fallujah.
I embedded with the ‘Gators,’ the Marines of Bravo Company, 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion, commanded by Captain Eric Dominijanni. The traditional mission of an Assault Amphibious Battalion is to land Marines on the beach, using their huge Amphibious Assault Vehicles (or AAVs), which hold up to 20 Marines and a crew of three.
Here in Iraq, the mission has changed. The Gators have been assigned to patrol Route Mobile, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Route Mobile, which, along with Route Michigan, are the two largest roads running east-west through Anbar province.
Today I patrolled Route Mobile with the Marines of 2nd Platoon, 3rd Section, led by Staff Sergeant Joshua Meyers. The section calls itself The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There a four tracks to a section, and 2nd Platoon, 3rd Section’s AAVs are aptly named White Horse, Red Horse, Black Horse, and Pale Horse. I accompanied Red Horse, commanded by Sergeant Joseph Borgard.
This route can be dangerous. Insurgents drop roadside bombs out of cars, place them in craters or dig holes and bury them, in an attempt to kill Marines and destroy their vehicles. Four AAVs have been disabled in the three months since Bravo Company has been in theater, and the company was hit three times over the past week. A Marine was killed during one of these strikes.
Most of the patrols are uneventful however. Many of the roadside bombs are easily spotted and subsequently destroyed by an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team. Today’s patrol also was uneventful, which is “typical,” according ‘Doc’ Eric Hughes, the Navy Corpsman assigned to the section.
We patrolled the entire length of the Gator’s section of the road, beginning in an area north of Habbaniyah almost all the way to Abu Ghraib. The section stopped a car of four Iraqi males and searched it, and found nothing (they appeared to be students based on the textbooks.) We also ran across an ambulance on the side of the road, with its windows blown out and tires shot. The Iraqi Highway Patrol was there first, and left after we arrived, as they wanted the Marines to tow the truck. The Iraqi police showed up and towed the ambulance away.
Route Mobile had a heavy security presence. During the patrol, we saw two Iraqi Police patrols, a Highway Police patrol, an Iraqi Army patrol and two convoys of Marines. Despite this presence, which the Marines also said was typical, black scars of bomb blasts were seen on the asphalt. Many of the roadside bombs were what are called “pop & drops” – when a roadside bomb is armed, then hastily dropped from a vehicle. These often can be more dangerous to the insurgents.”Some of these guys get killed planting those,” said Corporal Dave Guerra, as the devices can detonate prematurely.
Late in the evening, we stopped to provide overwatch on a section of Route Mobile. This was the same area where the Marine from Bravo Company was killed. An Iraqi family came out and the Marines gave them Meals, Ready to Eat and some candy and snacks. We pulled away after a cool, dust sunset and headed back to Camp Fallujah.
After the mission, the Marines discussed the effectiveness of the Iraqi Army and Police. They spoke highly of the Army. “Those guys are motivated, they will wave to you,” said SSgt Meyer. This is no surprise, as the 1st Division is the oldest and most seasoned division in the Army. But both Sgt Borgard and SSgt Meyer were less kind to the police, whom they described as “corrupt” and “gangsters.”
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