On patrol with 3 Company, 3-2-1 Iraqi Army in southern Fallujah
FALLUJAH, IRAQ: The mission of the Police and Military Transition Teams here in Fallujah is to assist with the turnover of the city to the Iraqis. This is happening, slowly but surely. In southwestern Fallujah, 3 Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division (3-2-1) owns the battlespace of a majority of the Resafa neighborhood. Resafa was one of the last bastions of al Qaeda during the 2004 assault on the city.
3 Company is based out of a Forward Operation Base called ‘The ROC,’ which is located at the base of the southern bridge, or New Bridge, which crosses the hairpin turn in the Euphrates River. The New Bridge was closed to civilian traffic after The ROC came under repeated insurgent attacks. The compound is scarred with numerous mortar, RPG and bullet attacks. The closing of the bridge was been a point of contention between the Mayor of Fallujah and the General commanding the 2nd Iraqi Brigade during a council meeting last week.
Today, there are less than a handful Marines of the 3-2-1 Military Transition Team assigned to the southwestern sector of Fallujah, and attached to 3 Company. I embedded with 3 Company and the Marine Military Transition Team at the ROC. During the embed, there were three Marines and an interpreter: Lieutenant Alan Cortez, Lance Corporals Danny Curcell and James Cvec, and Amir, the interpreter, who was a Sergeant Major in the old Iraqi Army.
The Military Transition Team for 3 Company, as well as the rest of 3rd Battalion, have truly moved into an advisory role. “They advise, assist and mentor the Iraqi Army, and what they do with this is up to them,” said Major David McCombs, the executive officer of MTT for 3rd Battalion. The other two MTTs for 1 and 2 Companies have the same role as 3 Company’s MTT.
The Iraqi soldiers, or jundi, in southwestern Fallujah run multiple patrols on their own; the Marines do not accompany the jundi every time they leave the wire. They provide for their own food, ammunition, “3 Company gathers their intelligence, plan and execute their own operations,” said Lt. Cortez, the lead adviser at The ROC.
These soldiers are volunteers, and are highly motivated to kill “Ali Baba” – the name they give the insurgents. There are major shortcomings with the Iraqi Army in Fallujah: logistics, pay and the lack of heavy weapons hold the jundi back from being fully independent (this will be covered in more depth along with the police in future posts on the MTTs/PTTs). But a fighting spirit is not one of these shortcomings.
Lt Cortez, Cpl Curcell, Amir and I joined 14 jundis from 3 Company for today’s morning patrol in southwestern Fallujah. The patrol kicked off after a 7:30 briefing, and started through the tall reeds, date palm groves and small farms running along the banks of the Euphrates. Insurgents have planted bombs along the path in the past, we walked by the location where one was detonated just last week. Also, in the past sniper fire has been encountered from the east. There were no such problems today.
The jundi lieutenant commanded the patrol through the streets of Fallujah (Iraqi Army patrols are led by a lieutenant, while the senior sergeants carry the PKC machine gun and RPG , whereas Marines squads are often led by a corporal.) He and the sergeants decided which houses to search, when to stop and who to search.
The patrol was largely uneventful from the jundi’s perspective. Several Fallujans called the lieutenant over to provide information. The Iraqi soldier’s ability to develop local intelligence networks, understand the language and culture and know the lay of the land far outweighs any tactical deficiencies they may have. “They can tell who’s not from the area – who’s from Mosul, or Tikrit or Ramadi – just by their accent, and they can tell when someone’s lying,” said Cpl Burcell.
But Fallujah wasn’t quiet during the patrol. Just several blocks away, a patrol from Charlie Company was hit on the road parallel to our position. This road is a main supply route, and insurgents tried to ambush the Marines with RPGs and small arms fire. This is where the MTT advisers came into play. The squad halted in place and Lt. Cortez radioed in our location to ensure a friendly fire incident didn’t take place. This same patrol was hit two other times during our patrol, and once more after we returned to The ROC. No Marines were wounded during any of the attacks, and the insurgents failed to hit the vehicles even once.
North of our position a battalion sized operation was underway (likely a cordon and search). And later in the afternoon, after I returned to the Government Center, five mortars landed inside the compound. Two were duds, an Iraqi Police vehicle was hit, but no one was injured. On Friday, four insurgents were killed by helicopter gunships after they were spotted loading and transporting IEDs into a truck.
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