Patrolling with the Snake Eaters

On the streets with the Iraqi soldiers of the 3/3-1

“Outcasts” of the 3/3-1 MTT. Click image to view.

KHALIDIYA, IRAQ: The Snake Eaters of the 3/3-1 are held in high esteem by the Marine and Army trainers at ASP Outpost. As with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division in Fallujah, the logistics and pay issues, along with a lack of heavy weapons, are what is holding the battalion back from operating without Coalition support. “This battalion can be independent if not for logistics,” said Major Owen West, the commanding officer of the 3/3-1 Military Transition Team (or MTT). “We’ve pushed these guys as far as we can in the 7 months I’ve been here,” said Army Sergeant First Class Andrew Himes, a senior NCO on the MTT. “They’re ready.”

The MTTs say Snake Eaters no longer use the patented “Iraqi death blossom,” the undisciplined outburst of fire in all directions after being attacked. They still expend plenty of ammunition when attacked, but now focus it on the area of enemy fire. Major West explained how, during a night ambush, the ambush team poured plenty of lead on an insurgent team, killing one insurgent in the process. During a separate ambush, three insurgent were wounded.

Pirate First Class Andrew Himes. Click image to view.

In patrolling with the Snake Eaters for several days, their proficiency became readily apparent. The first night patrol, on Thursday, was through the streets of the “poisonous little town” of Sadiqiya. Lieutenant Mohammed led his platoon, 5 MTTs and me through the farmlands, palm groves and the narrow, dirty streets of this most dangerous town. It had rained the two days prior, and the water turned the Iraqi sands into a slick mud that makes walking in the dark quite a challenge. The lieutenant led the patrol as if it was a speed-march at times, but the Iraqi soldiers maintained security throughout. Lt. Mohammed and his soldiers searched several homes, and asked the owners information about insurgent activity. It was an uneventful three hours, with then ever-present baying dogs seeming like the greatest threat.

The following morning, the Snake Eaters, along with the MTTs conducted a cordon on a mosque in Sadaqiya. The mosque is well known for spewing hatred against the American and Iraqi forces, and the Iraqi Army had good intelligence several terrorists would be present in the mosque for Friday sermon. The Iraqi Army conceived, planned and executed the operation from beginning to end. They surrounded the mosque just before the sermon ended. As the men and women exited the mosque the Iraqis lined up the military age males.

The local informants who provided the intelligence for the raid were present, and donned masks to keep their identity secret. They picked the terrorists out from the lineup. Fourteen were arrested and sent up from the battalion to the brigade detention facility for further investigation. Three of those captured are believed to be very senior local al Qaeda leaders. No shots were fired during the entire operation, which lasted less than 2 hours.

Major Owen West & Alex the ‘terp’ gather data while questioning an Iraqi male in Khaladiya. Click image to view.

On Saturday, Major West informed LtCol Mohammed that a plan they had discussed the evening prior to deploy Iraqi soldiers inside of Khaladiya to live, and bait the enemy into a fight, was approved by higher up. This is part of “predator-prey relationship” Major West is working to instill into the Iraqis. The public, and the insurgents, need to see the Iraqi soldiers aren’t afraid to take the fight to them and even live among them.

When Major West informed LtCol Mohammed the plan was a go, he was told the plan had already been executed. LtCol Mohammed had taken the initiative, and planned the operation and executed the mission. By 4 am local time, LtCol Mohammed had a group of scouts inside the city.

The Iraqi Army and the MTTs expected trouble that night, as the Iraqi Army incursion into the city was quite likely to stir the pot. They expected an insurgent attack on the Army outpost inside the city. In keeping with the predator-prey relationship, the Iraqi Army and MTTs devised a plan to put a presence in the city, and perhaps spring an attack on any insurgent party planning to hit the Army outpost.

Instead of moving out on Humvees, the Snake Eater’s platoon of scouts, accompanied by 5 MTTS and myself, struck out on foot from the battalion base, which sits on a hill overlooking Khaladiya, and moved into the city. The patrol moved through the desert hills between the base and the town. This approach is dangerous, particularly during the day, as soldiers are silhouetted behind the sky when coming over the hills, perfect targets for the snipers in the area.

On the march into Khaladiya, we overheard four mortars fall into one of the bases in the distance. The mortars were blind fired and we were told they didn’t hit a thing. The ever present semi-wild Iraqi dogs howled in the distance, and their howls grew louder as we approached and they shadowed our patrol. The insurgents couldn’t ask for a better early warning system.

This group of Iraqi Army scouts were the most disciplined and tactically proficient Iraqi soldiers I have seen while accompanying Iraqi troops outside the wire. They moved sharply, covered dangerous intersections and rooftops, effectively used hand and arm signals, and maintained their intervals. The scouts clearly embraced the idea of the “predator-prey” relationship. On the streets of Khaladiya, they were the hunters.

A stand in Market Street in Khaladiya. Click image to view.

The streets of Khaladiya were relatively busy for a nation at war, and particularly in Anbar province. Barbershops, corner stores, and vegetable stands were open. We encountered Iraqi men on the streets, and the scouts searched and questioned several. One ran away after being told to stop, and was chased down and caught by the Iraqi soldiers.

We marched through the back alleys and on the very dangerous Market and 20th streets, the latter of which is one of the most deadly heavily IED’d streets in Iraq. Neither 20th nor Market resembled the streets of the same name in my home city of Philadelphia

“If the muj won’t hit you after the first 20 minutes, they’re not going to do it,” said Major West. After 20 minutes, the insurgents never fired a shot. We ended up on Route Michigan several hours later. We mounted up on Humvees waiting to pick us up, and knew the insurgency isn’t as strong in Khaladiya as they wants the citizens to think it is.

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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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  • RTLM says:

    Bill Roggio, As much as you can say – is there any talk of significant changes in ROE?

  • With the Iraqi Army in Anbar:

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

  • hamidreza says:

    Bill, where did a father of 2 from Philadelphia develop all this courage? After Michael Yon, you are now the embeded standard bearer. The marines and soldiers surely bring out the best in us.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    None that I can discern at the moment. I’ve always felt the catch & release was more of the problem, and word is this will change.
    I actually have 3 little ones. I just do the best with what I have. The guys with courage are out here walking the streets day in and day out. I save the good words for them. But many thanks.

  • John says:

    Very informative reports on the Snake Eaters. It does bring to mind what I have come to understand as one rule of COIN oprations, that your most important decisions are made at the local level.
    Several of you have written about the “catch and release” due to the poor judiciary, is this not a more serious problem than the fighters being released? If it is, then what is the answer? Do our American officers in the area need more resources so they can wield influence over the local decision making process? Are too many decisions being made by corrupt Iraqi government leaders in Baghdad? Are the locals in the area in such a poor economic position that they are willing to allow a corrupt legal system if they think that somehow this system will protect them or support them? Are the locals more afarid of the legal system than of the insurgents?
    I have often heard of the great effects American soldiers can have with CERP funds. Are these funds availabe to the maximum degree they might be useful? Could they be used to back a better legal system? As well as the Iraqi soldiers performed, they will not have much hope of helping their country without a decent legal system.
    One other lesson I remember reading on COIN was “better a defection than a surrender, better a surrender than a capture, better a capture than a kill.” Thus it would sound like those writers have the wrong idea when they say those captured should be killed.
    As I said, the report on the military actions was very informative. Now about the civics.

  • BobK says:

    “What’s going on? If the IA are to be successful, how are they going to do it with no heavy equipment? No cohesive judicial system and no banking system? It doesn’t make sense”
    What’s going on?
    Its called a WAR. A backward dictatorship was removed. A new group is trying to setup and start a new democratic government from the ground up. It has some that DO NOT want said Democratic Government to work. This includes some inside and some outside the country. It also includes MANY in the US. If you are JUST STARTING and training an ARMY you dont just give them a howitzer and send them off with it. You start at the bottom and work up to the big stuff. COMMON SENSE
    ITS TIME TO QUIT THINKING IRAQ IS LIKE THE US. It is a very different nation and people. For you to expect them to have all the functioning nicities of home during such a large scale transformation is a bit ludicris.
    Get a grip and quit taking every sound bite or comment you read and screaming the sky is falling over and over. Just my opinion!

  • DJ Elliott says:

    Crawl, walk, run…
    The equipment is not the long pole, training is.
    – First they get 60mm mortar sections at Company level (2006/7).
    – Then 81/82/90/120mm mortar Batteries at Battalion level (2007/8).
    – Then Artillery Bns are formed for the Brigades (2008/9).
    – Then Artillery Brigades for the Divisions (2009/10).
    In parrallel the force is motorized with Wheeled APCs.

  • Andrew R. says:


    Where are you getting your information on the IA equipment/order of battle? It’s quite helpful.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    I watch the briefs – all of them.
    I read transcripts – all of them.
    I read press/press reports, Contract announcements, etc.
    And when I see something that could use amplification, I ask Centcom, CPIC, Etc. the questions. Sometimes they answer…
    I also maintain an OOB (for publication) on the ISF and argue possibilities and capabilities with some people that (like me) do not trust the press (aka Enemy Propagandists).
    E.G.: LTG Dempsey mentioned the 60mm mortars in a radio interview on 27 May 2006.
    (You can get transcripts and announcements e-mailed to you from DoD and alerts from DVIDS, etc. if you are crazy enough to want to read them all…)
    It is probably a good thing that I learned to speed-read during my 22 years as a USN intelligence Speciallist, otherwise I would not be able to squeeze it and a life into a day…

  • bmili says:

    Bill, I really appreciate all that you have done. This is a great site and thanks to all the commentators who have provided info. Two of my brothers are in the Army with one currently deployed. It drives me crazy to here talking points on the news and not historical facts. keep up the good work and God Bless our Troops! I am praying Petraeus is the answer we need with the counter-insurgency tactics that will soon be implemented if they are not already.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    For those that think you can wish an army into being overnight and who do not realize how green the ISF is:
    – Estimated time to add a Division to the US Army is three years.
    – In three years, 10 Army, 2 National Police and 5 Border Guards Divisions plus local police have been raised and trained. 9 of those 10 Army Divisions and the Border Guard are are in-lead. 5 of the 10 Army Divisions are under Iraqi command and control (2,3,4,8,10).
    They are not perfect and many are still green but, not bad for three years. It takes 4 years to train a 2lt and 3 for a Sgt in the US Army. The IA is training 2lts in 1 year course.
    Also, the IA/INP/DBE are insisting that their troops be educated. No illiterates. High calibre. Courses for personnel wanting to join that have insufficient education are being set up…
    The reason the 3-3-1 is so good is they all had prior experience, many in combat and they have strong unit cohesion.
    I have been amazed at how well the ISF has developed in such a short time…

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  • Tom W. says:

    In the photo of the “outcasts,” one man is armed with a sand-colored AK.
    Do many of our troops use the AK?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Tom W.,
    The man with the AK is the interpreter.

  • Tom W. says:

    “The man with the AK is the interpreter.”
    Looks pretty squared away, doesn’t he?
    Keep up the good work, Bill.

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