Forward Operation Base Delta, Wasit Province: With the surge of US forces in Baghdad and the Belts aiming at both al Qaeda and Shia extremists, Multinational Forces Iraq has devoted a significant effort in curtailing Iranian influence in Baghdad and the southern provinces. Since early spring, US and Iraqi forces have repeatedly targeted the leadership and cells of the Special Groups and the rogue Mahdi Army. To counter the flow of Iranian weapons — including mortars and the deadly explosively formed penetrator IEDs — and fighters trained in camps by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force, Multinational Division Baghdad has launched Operation Marne Sentry in Wasit province.
Multinational Forces Center assumed command over Wasit province in mid-July and identified the region as a main supply route for the Iranian-backed Special Groups and elements of the rogue Mahdi Army. Both groups have sought to undermine the Iraqi government and have attacked civilians and Iraqi and Coalition security forces in Baghdad and the South.
Wasit province has been largely quiet and it is believed the Shia extremist hold their fire as they do not wish to draw attention to their supply routes. Up until now, the Coalition had a light footprint in Wasit.
Operation Marne Sentry
On September 18, elements of the 3rd Infantry Brigade pushed forward from Forward Operating Base Delta just outside of Al Kut. The Georgians established Enduring Checkpoint 5, a beefed-up checkpoint with the capacity to be manned around the clock. This is the first of six checkpoints on the major roads leading from Iran to Baghdad, Brigadier General Jim Huggins, the deputy commanding general of Multinational Division Central said during an interview at Battle Position Hawkes in the Arab Jabour region.
Marne Century is a joint operation carried out by the Georgian Army in conjunction with elements of the US 214th Fires Brigade, US Special Forces, Iraqi Police, and US Police and Border Transition Teams. Coalition forces are also building up an existing border crossing point in Badrah near the Iranian border.
The cornerstone of Operation Marne Sentry is the 3rd Infantry Brigade of Georgian Army. Deployed to Forward Operating Base Delta in July just as the British drew down in Basra, the Georgians have been tasked with base security, convoy support, and serve as a quick reaction force. The Georgians have also taken on the mission of shutting down the Iranian ratlines snaking through Wasit province.
To conduct the mission the US supplied the 3rd Brigade with 311 up-armored Humvees. There are now over 2,000 Georgian troops in Wasit, one-quarter of the infantry brigades in the former Soviet Republic.
A new base on the border?
The ramp up in forces in Wasit province was naturally preceded by a buildup of logistical capabilities in the region. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that “the Pentagon is preparing to build its first base for U.S. forces near the Iraqi-Iranian border.” But the reports that the US is establishing a new base are “a stretch,” said Huggins.
“The base is already there in Badrah,” said Huggins. “We are expanding the Badrah point of entry puts POET [point of entry teams] at the border 24/7, along with over 100 Georgian troops,” he said. This will enable Coalition troops to live at the Badrah entry point as opposed to making the long trips from Forward Operation Bases Delta, some 40 miles away, twice a week.
At the existing Badrah checkpoint, engineers will construct a life-support area — tents, a dining facility, and a morale welfare and recreation center. The Badrah crossing will be supported by six enduring checkpoints, each of which will be manned by a large detachment of Georgian troops, Huggins explained.
Like the Badrah crossing point, the enduring checkpoints will be manned around the clock by a large contingent of Georgian troops, built with their own life-support areas. The enduring checkpoints have been positioned to interdict the major roads believed to be used to smuggle weapons and fighters from Iran and to allow Multinational Division Central to “have depth and flexibility” in blocking additional routes used by the smugglers. “They will try to bypass” the established checkpoints, Huggins said.
While the “Qods Force surrogates” of the Special Groups may seek alternative routes, Multinational Forces Iraq is eying the future. The desert crossings in Wasit become marshes in the spring, funneling traffic along the main roads where the checkpoints can more closely monitor traffic.
Both Multinational Division Central and the Georgians expect an increase in attacks as the Coalition expands operations throughout Wasit province. Moving out of Delta and along the Iranian supply route “could cause a spike in violence,” Huggins said. “We are in Iraq, we know casualties are possible, and we are prepared,” said Major Shavlego Tabatadze, the commander of the 3rd Georgian Infantry Brigade during an interview at Delta.
“Once the Georgians begin to roll out the gates, they will be hit,” said Captain Brad Hudson, commander of Charlie Company, 26th Forward Support Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division, the medical company deployed at Delta. Hudson’s company is expanding its medical facilities; along with an eight man surgical detachment led by Major Matt Bacchette, the company is preparing to move into a newly renovated medical facility at the base.
The Georgian Army has deployed a medical team consisting of 12 doctors and 32 nurses to support the soldiers deployed as part of Marne Sentry. The Georgians are also building a new medical clinic to support the needs of their soldiers. “Most of our staff has experiences from the internal wars in our country, as well as in Kosovo, Afghanistan, a prior deployment in Iraq,” said Lieutenant Colonel Otar Jejeia, the chief of medical services for the Georgian brigade.
Despite the experience, training for US, Georgian, and the multitude of Coalition forces at Delta has intensified. Lieutenant Joyce Mullens, a doctor with Charlie Company, has organized medical training for the Iraqi Police and the Georgian Army troops based at Delta. (There are also Romanian, El Salvadorian, Polish, and Kazak troops at Delta.)
The future at the border
With the Baghdad Security Plan and operations in the Belts showing progress in curbing both sectarian violence and major al Qaeda attacks, Multinational Forces Center is eying the future and setting up the infrastructure in Wasit to maintain a presence along the Iranian border. Mullens stated Forward Operating Base Delta has been “identified as an enduring base.” The buildup at Delta clear shows this base will play a significant role in future operations in the region.
Huggins stated that other such operations like Marne Sentry may be in the works. Iranian influence “isn’t just in Wasit,” Huggins noted. “There is a footprint in Najaf and Karbala,” while further south Iran continues to “extend its influence in JAM [Jaish al Mahdi, or the Mahdi Army].” The Iranian border in Diyala province to the north and Maysan to the south will need to be secured to check Iranian designs on the sovereignty of Iraq.
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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.