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