Habbaniyah and the 3/3-1 Snake Eaters

Joint Army, Marine Military Transition Team works with the Iraqi Army in one of the most dangerous regions in Anbar province

The 3/3-1 rolls out on a mission. Click image to view.

KHALIDIYA, IRAQ: Despite major clearing operations in Anbar province in 2004 and 2005 (what I’ve termed the Anbar Campaign), the province remains one of the most deadly regions of Iraq. The Anbar Campaign cleared the region of overt insurgent and al Qaeda control (regions such as Haditha, Fallujah and Qaim were declared ‘Islamic Republics’ by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for periods of time), al Qaeda havens and ratlines, and a persistent underground insurgency remain. The focus in Anbar has shifted from large scale combat operations to counterinsurgency operations, and the integration of the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police and tribal support is crucial to the success of the mission.

The push over the past two years has been to provide the Iraqi Army and Police with the training and tools needed to provide for security independent of the Coalition. The Military and Police Transition Teams (MTT & PTT) are the primary tools used to accomplish this mission.

I’ve embedded with the joint Marine and U.S. 3/3-1 Army Military Transition Team, which is led by Major Owen West, the son of Bing West, the renowned military historian and writer. Major West’s team consists of 5 Marines, 9 soldiers, and 3 interpreters, and advises the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division (3/3-1 IA) of the Iraqi Army, which owns the battlespace in the region directly west of the city of Habbaniyah, and two towns east of the city.

Map of a section of the 3/3-1’s area of operations. Click image to view.

The 3/3-1’s area of operations sits astride the main corridor between Ramadi and Fallujah. Major West describes the region, and particularly the city of Khalidiya, as “the center of gravity of the Fallujah-Ramadi corridor”, with al Qaeda and insurgents transiting between the two cities and to and from Syria and Baghdad. The region is made up of farming and fishing villages, desert tracts, densely populated urban centers, the Euphrates River and Lake Habbaniyah . The main cities and towns in the Habbaniyah region consist of Khalidiya, the Civil and Coolie refugee camps, Albu Fleis, Sadiqiya, and Lake Habbaniyah.

Khalidiya is a city of about 15,000 with a diverse population, which includes Christians and Kurds. The city contains a mixture of rich and poor neighborhoods, some friendly and some “deadly” to US and Iraqi forces. Local Iraqi police have begun to patrol the city. The Iraqi Army has established a robust intelligence network in the city, and the population is perceived as being largely tired of the violence.

The Civil and Coolie Camps are towns that refugees have flocked to, and house about 10,000 people. The refugees fled the violence in Fallujah and as far away as Baghdad. The camps are considered secure today, and Major West attributes this to several factors, mainly strong sheikhs, employment, a local Iraqi Police walking the beat, the proximity to the Iraqi Army and U.S. bases, and the people living there fled the violence from other areas, and are not interested in seeing it spring up in their new homes.

Albu Fleis is a farming village of about 5,000 people and is considered very hostile to the U.S. presence. The town is “filled with former Saddamists and those who harbor insurgents” and the Iraqi Army has had difficulty in establishing a robust local intelligence network in the town.

Sadiqiya is described by Major West as “a poisonous little town of 3,000 people” in which, like Albu Fleis, the Iraqi Army has had much difficulty in establishing a local intelligence network. The insurgency and al Qaeda flourish in Albu Fleis and Sadiqiya without a constant presence.

The 3/3-1 prepares for a mission. Click image to view.

Lake Habbaniyah contains a series of fishing villages and is considered friendly territory. The region also contains a possible bypass route for insurgents looking to avoid Highway 10 when shuttling arms, fighters and cash from Ramadi to Fallujah.

The insurgency in the Habbaniyah region is believed to be largely dominated by al Qaeda and foreign fighters, which have the cash and expertise to drive the violence and attacks against Iraqi and U.S. forces. The local insurgents are easily co-opted by al Qaeda, either through intimidation or just due to a plain dislike of the U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces. “Hard core al Qaeda eventually gain control of the local insurgency either through violence or persuasion,” said Major West. The nucleus is believed to consist of 25 to 30 “hard core” fighters, with about 200 “hanger-ons.” Major West compares the insurgency in the region to the Cali Colombian drug cartel, which used wanton violence to swallow up its competitors.

LtCol Mohammed is certain the insurgency is largely driven by foreign terrorists, encouraged and supported by neighboring countries. “Iraq has problems because our neighbors want problems,” said LtCol Mohammed in an interview. “Ramadi, Habbaniyah are close to Syria and Saudi Arabia. Mosul is close to Syria. Diyala is close to Iran. These countries don’t want to see us succeed, prosper. They fear this. They fear what happens [if we have] democracy, peace, and their own people will see this and want this too.”

The 3/3-1 Iraqi Army manages this complex battlespace, with the help of the Military Transition Team.

In conversations with LtCol Mohammed and Major West, they explained the history of the 3/3-1, which they both felt was important in understanding the development of the unit and its place in the fight today. The unit possessed experience and leadership in the officer corps. The officers and many of the enlisted fought against the U.S. in the Gulf War in 1991, during Operation Desert Fox in 1998, and during the Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The unit was considered to be an elite fighting force, superior to Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. “This Iraqi Army battalion has a positive, martial attitude,” said Major West.

During the 2003 invasion, the battalion dropped its weapons and faded back into the civilian population, awaiting the call to reform after the fighting was over. “The call never came,” said Major West, which he said was a critical error made by the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by Paul Bremer. The unit maintained its social network and reformed after the failure and collapse of the Iraqi National Guard in 2004. The 3rd Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Army Division was the first unit to form up under General Petreaus’ order to reconstitute the Iraqi Army.

The 3/3-1 “screaming chicken” shoulder patch. Click image to view.

The 3/3-1 trained in Taji and fought heavy battles in Mosul during 2004, where they “learned what it was like to fight offensively,” said Major West. “We fought on both the east and west sides of the city, and the fighting was tough,” said LtCol Mohammed, “But it prepared and hardened us.” In Mosul, the 3/3-1 also established what Major West calls “a predator-prey relationship,” an aggressive, offensive mindset which is vital to control security out here in Anbar province. A passive security posture is viewed as weakness by the local population, and serves only to encourage the insurgency. The battalion conducts multiple patrols, raids and security operations on a daily basis, and conducts the intelligence gathering and planning for these missions. They work closely with the Iraqi Police in the region, and conduct joint operations. Like other Iraqi battalions, their weakness lies in their ability to sustain logistics and pay their soldiers on a regular basis.

The sectarian divides that exist in units in Baghdad do not exist here in Habbaniyah. “This battalion is mixed between Shia and Sunni,” said Major West, “and they have not succumbed to the sectarian pressures that exist elsewhere.” Pictures of Muqtada al-Sadr cannot be found on the walls of the barracks of Iraqi soldiers. The large majority of the officers are spoken of highly by the officers and enlisted of the MTT, and they are considered excellent leaders with solid tactical skills.

The 3/3-1 also possesses pride in its appearance as warriors. When the Marines explained the shoulder patch of the battalion, and eagle superimposed on a parachute, looked like a “super chicken,” the 3/3-1 made up an emblem with eagle talons grasping a snake, and renamed themselves the “Snake Eaters.” When I asked if they knew the significance of the term (Snake Eaters is a term for U.S. Special Forces) and the fact their history came from an Iraqi special forces background, Major West said that they did not, but was pleased with the choice.

Major West and the rest of the MTTs here at Outpost ASP view the Iraqi Army as the key to defeating the insurgency. “What they lack in tactical proficiency is far outstripped by their strategic awareness” of the culture and language. Their ability to establish local intelligence networks, said Major West, “is uncanny.” Captain Dhafer, the 4 Company Commander, is nicknamed “Captain IED” for his ability to locate IEDs and weapons caches.

An example of the proficiency of the Iraqi troops in establishing intelligence networks can be seen in the numbers of IEDs found and disarmed in the region. In the seven months since this MTT has been in the region, over 80 IEDs have been found. Khalidiya’s ’20th Street’ is considered “one of the most heavily IED’d 200 meter stretches in Iraq.” But only 7 of the 80 were actually detonated against the Iraqi and U.S. troops . This percentage is far below the national average (a number which I am told is classified.) This success is directly attributed to the robust Iraqi intelligence network and the ability of the Iraqi troops in identifying and disarming the bombs.

The 3/3-1 also is very careful about how it gathers its intelligence and conducts its arrests. Under the current, broken judicial system for detainees – the “catch and release” program where captured suspected insurgents are judged in U.S. military courts and are let go despite solid evidence of their guilt, the release rate is high, at about 50 percent. This causes a loss in confidence among the Iraqi people and a sag in morale among U.S. and Iraq troops, as the same fighters are released to conduct more attacks and intimidate those who fingered them. The detention facilities are derisively referred to as “Muj Universities” as the insurgents network in the jails.

The conviction rate among the 3/3-1 detainees is at 95 percent. Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Wheeler, a Marine Corp historian who was with the 3/3-1 during my stay, has traveled Anbar province and conducted numerous interviews (over 270 by his count) with soldiers, Marines and sailors. He explained the overwhelming problem in Anbar is the catch and release program. “If we stopped reincarnating the bad guys” by releasing them to fight another day, said LtCol Wheeler, “We can make significant progress in reducing the enemy’s numbers and capabilities in Anbar province.” If the judicial process for convicting insurgents does not change, other Iraqi and Coalition units will need to emulate the 3/3-1’s methodology of intelligence gathering and evidence collection to have a shot at bringing the insurgency to heel.

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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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  • DJ Elliott says:

    HMMWVs, trucks and what looks like Otokar APC.
    Motorized Infantry Bn?

  • Neo-andertal says:

    Why is the military legal system broken down. I have heard about it over and over again, but no one gives specific reasons why it is broken. Is it an institutional problem or primarily political. What will it take to fix it. Who is keeping it from being fixed.

  • eLarson says:

    “If we stopped reincarnating the bad guys”

  • GK says:

    “So why take them prisoner in the first place?”
    I agree. Almost every other war in human history has been won by doing the following :
    Killing the enemy.

  • Cruiser says:

    Great report Bill. Iraq needs more “snake eaters”.
    Neo-andertal: good questions!
    It would not surprise me at all if we are one of the major causes of their catch and release problems. You can be sure that we have been trying to create a justice system modeled on ours. The problem is that ours is calibrated to make as few errors as possible – a luxury we can afford because we (in the US) do not face coordinated, systematic murderous violence that is overwhelming the authority of the government and rending the society.
    Iraq is facing those problems. Iraq has to have a system that is less rigorous. They (and we) must accept a larger amount of error (injustice) in the effort to restore (create?) the authority of the government and strengthen their weak society. Someday they can move toward a more just system.

  • mike says:

    I had heard that the Iraqi’s have no tanks, helicopters armored personnel carriers, etc. If this is true how will they ever win?

  • DJ Elliott says:

    Read the article. look at the pictures. Those vehicles pictured are Iraqi HMMWVs, Iraqi OTOKAR APC and Iraqi 6×6 truck.
    If you payed any attention to the briefs or quarterly reports, you would know that:
    – The Iraqi Army has a Mech Division equipped with T55/72, BMP1, MTLB, M113 and Type 63s.
    – The remaining Iraqi Divisions are to be 30% equipped with Wheeled APCs (DZIK3/OTOKAR/Cougar) by Oct 2007. 70% by end-2008.
    – Iraq is getting 2797 Uparmored HMMWVs total by May 2007. Combination of donation, loans and Iraqi direct purchases.
    P.S. Tanks and other heavy weapons are for fighting armies. Counter-insurgency does not require heavy armor…

  • ECH says:

    DJ Elliott,
    Tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons are exactly what the Iraqi Army needs and the Pentagon has been extremely foolish not to provide them to the Iraqi Army.
    If we want to get Iran and Syria to back down and convince the militias in Iraq to go underground long term they need tanks and heavy weapons. Even if the Iraqi Army doesn’t use many of them they are a great deterrent and they finally give the Iraqi Army some teeth.
    US intel has determined the Medhi Army is more military capable then the Iraqi Army. That is a spectacular failure on the part of the Pentagon.
    From CNN
    RICKS: I think that’s the big question is, nobody doubts that he certainly wants to do these things, but is he really — does he really have the political power and the backing to do it? It really struck me in a recent analysis I was given by a senior U.S. intelligence officer, that the Mehdi Army that belongs to Muqtada al Sadr was deemed to be more militarily effective than the Iraqi army.
    ROBERTS: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised. They got 60,000 fighters. We heard complaints from the Iraqi Army that in many cases, they are better armed as well, much heavier weapons than the IA has at present.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    As to Equipment:
    – As I said, IA is getting APCs and has been getting them (573 OTOKAR, 600 DZIK3, 200+ Cougar, 100 Reva, etc)…
    – Training and equipping with mortars and HMGs is ongoing.
    – After that is the Artillery…
    Mahdi Gang:
    – I will not dignify those crooks or insult our Army & Guard(Militia) with the honorable titles that claim.
    – Their actions are classic extortion/protection rackets of the mob or street gangs and their capability is along the same lines.
    – They may out gun the local police (so does the Bloods and Crypes in LA unless you call SWAT) but, they have lost every fight with Iraqi Army they have had. They have infantry weapons only. MGs. Mortars. RPGs. AKs. No Armor at all…
    By definition, How can they be better equipped than an army that already has a Mech Division and is motorizing its Infantry Divisions? An Army that has received and fields over 1500 APCs and 135,000 personnel so far…
    That BS story from CNN was out of date by a year (plus) when it was released…

  • DJ Elliott says:

    – Iraqi Government budget (they are a sovereign nation) has between 6.5-7 Billion USD this year. (Parliment is still debating but all agree that security is priority.)
    – Via FMS GoI has spent 2 Billion on new weapons this US FY so far. That includes 300 more tracked APCs, Helos, COIN and ISAR Aircraft and Wheeled APCs.
    – Some Iraqi Press reporting indicates that the new budget includes 4000+ armored vehicles plus 1700 uparmored HMMWVs and attack helos…
    If you are getting your news from CNN, you are not getting news…

  • Michael says:

    Thanks for setting the record straight.
    Before 9/11, I actually trusted general news sources. After 9/11, it took me just a few weeks of concentrated effort of news sites around the world and here at home to find out I needed to expand my boundaries to understand what had been going on around the Middle East and Asia.
    Why were we blind-sided? The media deserves critique as much as our government.
    Bill is doing a great job of pointing out the problems of a weak nation, during an insurgency rebuilding itself without blaming an entire nation – us.
    We are “shocked” here at just about anything outside our comfort zones. We have cozy heat and cool A/C, clean running water, sewage treatment and homes like mansions compared to most of the world. We have police, fire and military we can trust, that get paid on time. But, it was not always this way. We had our bad days at the beginning too. Having traveled to Belarus in 98 and to Russia several times(some smaller places), plus Mexico. I have an inkling of corruption and third world countries.
    It might be interesting to point out that only last year, many Russians did not have any regular heat during the winter. Sometimes entire buildings are out. Corruption, pure laziness. Whatever, it happens routinely. And the blackmarket is huge.
    Corruption exist on massive scales outside America. Plus, Iraq is a war zone, an insurgency.
    I appreciate that Bill shoots straight. But his reports show that despite all these problems, the Iraqi Army is pulling together. That is key. Now its a matter of time to see if they can pull the civilian governance along side the military.
    Iraqis are being given a new lease in life for a country long oppressed. There is corruption and there are new people, green and inexperienced in running a government. There are old lines of tribal, ethnic and religious lines that flare up.
    Under Saddam, half the population was not getting food, healthcare, water, or anything at all resembling normal life. This was done along sectarian lines. For 35 years, there was hatred, torture and oppression.
    So, it is to be expected there are many problems right now getting good civilian government into place with adequate facilities to hold and prosecute criminals. Especially if some of the criminals end up in the police or in charge.
    Eliminating the violence allows a free flow of economic distribution and wealth. It is critical that the criminals, terrorist be put away. I agree also, this is a system that needs to be more aggressive than normal US laws today. It is a War Zone. They need to put up Temporary prisons, set up military Judges and run these people thru. They need to get the police trained for evidence collection and prosecutors to hot spots for a quick and speedy trial.
    This is a monumental task for a country of 25 million people. There are going to be hiccups along the way.
    There was a news item in another Iraqi area, Mosul I think, where the lawyers went on strike. Catch/release was happening as a result. No lawyers, no trial. I believe the Mayor actually went himself and picked up some of the lawyers one day. They started prosecuting cases again and it broke the strike. It could be they were not being paid. It could be this is happening all over Iraq.
    Distribution of funds and building of new infrastructure, plus economic growth in hostile territory is not easy. Think of the WildWest days.
    Setting up independent audit trails and good government accounting are probably years away.
    With no job, anger at losing power and $1000 to plant an IED, people take desperate measures for their families. Many of these people would probably not be aligned to the extremist given alternatives. Some are forced into it merely for where they live in order to survive and not be killed themselves.
    This is going to take time and effort in the Business, Political and Military sides. But changes are taking place and many Iraqi’s do get it.
    There’s a great video over at Hotair.com now with a few Iraqi’s Michelle Malkin interviewed. One guy called out both Iran and Saudi Arabia as the problem makers and the most scared of Iraq becoming a free nation. I thought that was really interesting he did not mention Syria. And it was also interesting he called out each country so blatantly as being afraid of the new Iraq.
    But he’s right, a new Iraq, free, democratic, self-governed by and for the people scares Saudi Arabia and Iran.
    Many of the Iraqis get it. Now if only our media and our Congress did!
    The new video over at Hotair.com is what our MSM should be doing. The Blogs are taking the lead, like Bill.
    We cannot leave these people alone after they’ve been fighting for freedom along side Americans. It would be criminal and devastating to them, the entire region.
    They are fighting and dying beside our own soldiers. Key friendships are being made that will last a lifetime. New Iraqis are rising up and taking authority in their neighborhoods as the security gets better each day. They’re learning to self-govern. They’re learning to fight against the extremist.
    1000 Iraqis just recently signed up for police recruits around Ramadi. That is huge! Each day more Iraqis are answering the call for a new Iraq.
    This message should be getting out to everyone that the Iraqis do want freedom. There are moderates there who want a normal life, and hate the extremist. And want nothing more than a good job, family and peace. Like any of us.
    It takes time, it takes a free media for them to see a world they’ve never had the opportunity to see before outside their closed world, manipulated by a Tyrant for 35 years. As they realize how much the world has passed them by and more of them get to see places like Dubai, or thru free media to see cities around the world, with different ideas, art, people and opinons. They will begin to fight for this new found freedom.

  • Toad Kelly says:

    Seems like we endanger our guys by making them act like police instead of allowing them to fight a war. Too much detaining/capturing. While it is appropriate to detain someone who may be innocent of involvement and just in the wrong place at the wrong time, I see no reason to detain a person who is caught red-handed. Detaining those who have taken up arms against us increases risks to our men who have to handle them, costs a lot and requires more scarce resoures, and, adds to the risk that they will at some time in the future be released to do it again. While there may be some chance of obtaining intelligence from some of them, the rest should be shot dead on the spot – no more cost and no more risk. A dead guy will never ever have the chance to hurt us again.

  • Michael says:

    Has the ROE changed now since the President’s speech? They’ve certainly been more agressive in certain areas, but I’m curious if they’re allowing our soldiers now greater freedom.
    Bill, any change downline for ROE?

  • DJ Elliott says:

    ROE changes will not be announced.
    They are classified.
    Friday’s brief would prove interesting to you.
    The only politician that can order a release or hands off in Baghdad is the PM via written orders relayed by MoD to IA Cmdr Baghdad.
    The rest of the politicians that the press is quoting, do not count…

  • DJ Elliott says:

    “Distribution of funds and building of new infrastructure, plus economic growth in hostile territory is not easy. Think of the WildWest days.
    Setting up independent audit trails and good government accounting are probably years away.”
    Corruption is a problem in most countries. Just look no further than the US Congress.
    “We have the best congress money can buy”
    – Samuel Clemmens (aka Mark Twain)
    As to GoI:
    – The setting up of Inspector General’s office has been ongoing for over two years now.
    – MoD is about one year ahead of MoI and the rest of the Iraqi ministries are behind MoI.
    – That is why the FPS is such a problem, no oversight.
    – MoI is to take those personnel over this year (from the 26 ministries and 8 indipendent departments). They expect one-third (of ~150,000) to turn out to be ghost employees…

  • BobK says:

    DJ says:
    “By definition, How can they be better equipped than an army that already has a Mech Division and is motorizing its Infantry Divisions? An Army that has received and fields over 1500 APCs and 135,000 personnel so far…
    That BS story from CNN was out of date by a year (plus) when it was released…”
    DJ Somehow the MSM have given these guys superman status. They are better equiped and trained, smarter than the IA etc. BULLSH..
    Like you say head to head it isnt even close. Its easy as a “gang” to control areas by violence. That does not an ARMY make.
    They have some great PR folks though!

  • DJ Elliott says:

    Iraqi Government budget (they are a sovereign nation) has between 6.5-7 Billion USD this year. (Parliment is still debating but all agree that security is priority.)
    CORRECTION: That is the security portion of the GoI Budget. MoD/MoI only…

  • ECH says:

    “By definition, How can they be better equipped than an army that already has a Mech Division and is motorizing its Infantry Divisions? An Army that has received and fields over 1500 APCs and 135,000 personnel so far”
    You haven’t listened to the Iraqi Army’s complains then. I have seen many interviews with Iraqi officers explaining the problem.
    The Medhi Army has Katushas, Mortars and other heavy weapons to kill the enemy at a distance. The Iraqi Army has none of that and when it comes to on the ground battles such weapons matter greatly.

  • Andrew R. says:


    Do you know if there is any hard information on what the U.S. and IG are planning on doing about artillery for the Iraqi Army? Last I checked, IA essentially had none (except for some units that were getting mortars). If we’ve changed this that would be an excellent step in the right direction.

  • Agnieszka O. says:

    Thank you Bill! Very informative as usual…

  • DJ Elliott says:

    The Medhi Army has Katushas, Mortars and other heavy weapons to kill the enemy at a distance. The Iraqi Army has none of that and when it comes to on the ground battles such weapons matter greatly.
    Posted by ECH | January 20, 2007 1:38 PM
    – ECH: First you crawl, then you walk then you run.
    – Katushas are what the Israelis are dealing with (Hamas/Hezb). The Medhi GANG does not have or use them.
    – Mortars are a problem and they are not exclusive to the hostiles. The IA is being issued their own mortars and 12.7mm HMGs. First the elem/Bty level…(in progress)
    – As to battle: They shoot and scoot. Usually at civilians. Gangs do not stand and fight unless the opposition is civilians…
    What you need to fight that is ISAR and COIN strike cababilities that are already in the purchase pipeline.
    Do you know if there is any hard information on what the U.S. and IG are planning on doing about artillery for the Iraqi Army? Last I checked, IA essentially had none (except for some units that were getting mortars). If we’ve changed this that would be an excellent step in the right direction.
    – Only references to Arty is from some of the briefs and some vague references. Mortars are it so far. Focus is on the expansion (by 3 Divs), Helos, ISAR/COIN aircraft and motorizing of forces for COIN vice heavy weapons but, PM wants them.
    – When the Parliment finishes arguing the security budget, we will get better numbers.
    They need about 59 Battalions of Arty for them to be able to stand up to any problem neighbors (Iran). (1416 tubes)
    – Keeping eye on purchases but, do not expect any such formations prior to Sep. That is when the current expansion (to 13 Divs/41 Bdes/132 Bns) with manning of combat elements at 110% is to be complete. Only HMG/mortar Elems/Btrys for Co/Bn level are being formed now.
    Possible that they might restart the Taji works. Iraq used to make its own Mortars and ammo (and more). That would put some people back to work…

  • With the Iraqi Army in Anbar:

    Bill Roggio describes “Patrolling with the Snake Eaters in Iraq” here and here…

  • Steve says:

    Fantastic blog! I was in Habaniyah from 4-2005 to 10-2005. I miss it and the times I had. Reading about Coolie Camp brought back some memories I will never forget. Hopefully, I’ll get back!
    Keep your powder dry!


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