• U.S.

Taking the Battle to the Enemy

11 minute read
Phil Zabriskie/Fallujah

As lightening flashes intermittently in an otherwise clear sky, a group of more than 200 Marines begins to gear up on a dusty plain outside the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Officers bark orders, directing grunts into their vehicles. Tank drivers climb into turrets and crank up heavy-metal tunes. Infantrymen who moments earlier had been asking about baseball scores exhort one another to move forward. “This is what you trained for, Marine!” “You’re the hunter! You’re the predator!”

As the group prepared to move last Thursday on the city that has most bedeviled the U.S. occupation, the hyperbole seemed appropriate. Fallujah is the presumed base of Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the most potent terrorist in Iraq. And more than 100 suspected insurgents have been arrested in recent weeks in nearby villages. Now the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines along with the Army’s Brigade Combat Team 2 and a company from the 2nd Tank Battalion–a combined force exceeding 1,000 troops–were about to launch the biggest move on Fallujah in months. The 3/5 would not enter the city but intended to go right up to the southeastern outskirts. The Army would move to the southwestern edge and the tankers to the northern limits, while F/A-18s continued to pound suspected insurgent hideouts. Yet this was not the big showdown everyone had expected but rather an attempt to see how the insurgents inside the city would respond. A Marine battle-operations officer called it “a dress rehearsal” for the ultimate combat. This was a scouting mission, a risk-filled feint supported by air power, an attempt to get an edge for the eventual showdown.

The latest counterinsurgency effort began in a week that included the start of Ramadan and saw the U.S. military–primarily the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force–move boldly to try to subdue the rebellion raging in Fallujah and Ramadi, the two most restive towns in Anbar, Iraq’s most restive province. New forces were brought in, new strategies employed. But despite clear successes, the week’s record of strikes and counterstrikes suggests that if, as the young Marine said, the Americans are predators, the prey is dictating the nature of the hunt.

The assault had begun in Ramadi two days earlier, when much of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines joined the élite 36th Battalion of the Iraqi National Guard and their U.S. special- forces advisers to raid seven mosques in the city. As in Fallujah, attempts to prop up a local government in Ramadi have faltered amid violence, kidnappings and assassinations. Military bases in both places are frequently mortared. Unlike in Fallujah, though, in Ramadi the Marines are a regular presence in the streets. And they are hit daily by a mostly invisible enemy, bountifully armed with improvised explosive devices (IEDS), rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and automatic weapons. Most attacks occur on Ramadi’s main road, dubbed Route Michigan. (When asked if they’re in control of the city, a roomful of grunts responds with phrases like “Oh, f___ no!”) The mosques offer support and sanctuary to fighters, the Marines say. Calls to attack Americans and the Iraqis working with them go out over the mosques’ loudspeakers.

Iraq’s 36th Battalion was called in because American troops are forbidden to enter mosques and because the 36th is battle tested, having taken part in earlier sieges in Najaf and Samarra. “God willing, we will go anywhere in Iraq and kill the terrorists,” says battalion commander Fadil Jamel. With the 36th out front, the Marines play a supporting role.

The Ramadi operation, launched at 4 a.m., is designed to end before sunrise, before morning prayers. The Marines expect resistance, but as the 36th breaches the gate of Ramadi’s main mosque, the city remains quiet. Sergeant Jose L. Carillo of the 2/5’s Whiskey Company looks out from a position on a nearby rooftop. “These guys fight when they want to fight, not when we want them to fight,” Carillo says of the insurgents, as he peers through night-vision goggles. “They just keep on recruiting. And, I don’t mind saying it, we don’t have enough people for what we’re doing.”

With the first search complete, Whiskey Company moves with the 36th to another mosque, while other units pursue other targets. Again, no resistance. The whole day is quiet. “That’s not good. That means they’re planning,” says a Marine who asks not to be identified because he has told his wife he is in Kuwait. Indeed, the response comes at night. Shortly after 9 p.m., another company encounters resistance in the town. The Whiskey platoon, tasked as that night’s Quick Reaction Force, gears up, led by company commander Captain Patrick Rapicault. “We’ll probably get hit tonight,” says his driver, Corporal Marc Ryan, who gazes at a picture of his sweetheart back home before speeding into town.

First stop is the government center, a heavily fortified observation post where two Marines had been wounded by mortar fire earlier that day. The stay is brief. “We’re definitely being observed,” says Rapicault, but the night seems calm enough, so the units decide to head back. They turn right out of the government center onto Michigan, then right again on Central. Halfway down the street, an IED detonates near the lead humvee. They have driven into an ambush. As Ryan steers through the smoke, red tracers streak through the air and bounce along the ground. RPGs fly from both sides of the road, and AK-47 fire crackles. Rapicault’s gunner returns fire with the mounted .50-cal. machine gun; his counterparts in other vehicles do likewise. The convoy U-turns en masse, back to Michigan, then back to sanctuary in the government center. No one is injured. One humvee has a flat tire, and another has been hit with two RPGS, which were deflected by the armor. A Marine says his crew saw an RPG team running down an alley and tried to take it out with an automatic grenade launcher, but the weapon jammed.

In the empty, darkened hallways of the government center, Rapicault huddles with senior officers from both Whiskey and Echo companies, studying a map by flashlight, plotting the next move. Reports arrive that some 25 men are massing south of the ambush site. The Marines debate their options, then head out again to find these insurgents.

Ryan once more turns right on Michigan. As the convoy approaches Central, an IED blows near the lead vehicle. Then two more– 155-mm mortar shells wired with remote triggers–detonate on either side of Rapicault’s humvee, only a few feet from the front tires. The blasts shower the humvee with sparks and dust, spider-webbing the windshield and nearly piercing the reinforced glass in two places. Ryan pushes through the smoke, struggling with steering and visibility, then hits a barrier on the side of the road. The vehicle is alone, no support front or back. More IEDs go off in the distance, and Rapicault shouts to Ryan to turn around. “We can’t stop here!” he yells. The windshield is covered with oil, so the gunner shouts out directions, and Ryan feels his way back onto the road.

A few anxiety-ridden minutes later, the men again take cover in the government center. The other humvees lurch in on busted tires. Between Whiskey and Echo, seven vehicles have wheel or windshield damage. A few gunners are dazed. One has had his neck grazed by shrapnel, but again the men have evaded serious injuries thanks to the reinforced armor of their vehicles. For the next few hours they wait for a support team with extra tires. When the vehicles are fixed, the men will head out to swap with another platoon. Rapicault’s humvee is disabled–this is the sixth time he has been hit–and efforts to tow it fail when it skids sideways into a concrete barrier, busting the axle.

All told, 13 IEDs have been detonated in Ramadi Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. The explosions and the chase–it’s not always clear who is chasing whom–continue into the next day. Two Echo Company Marines have been killed and one wounded by small-arms fire and an RPG attack. By noon Wednesday, things begin to settle. The battalion has detained 15 people and seized a weapons cache. The Americans believe they have killed 30 to 40 insurgents but can’t say for sure because the insurgents quickly remove their dead and wounded. Rapicault calls it “a very successful day” and says he hopes the seizure of mortar shells, pipe bombs, AK-47s, machine guns and RPGs means the next few days, at least, will be quiet.

The push on Fallujah comes the following night. The tanks and troop carriers led by the 3/5 pull out of the base around 9 p.m. An AC-130 Spectre gunship–known to the Marines as “Basher”–is already in the air. After an hour, the battalion vehicles set off. The neon-green lights of the Fallujah mosques are visible in the distance. The main target, though, is an old soda factory just south of the city’s main thoroughfare; insurgents are thought to be congregating in the area. The nerve center of the jihadist network, the military believes, is just to the west, in an area the Americans dub “Queens.”

On their way toward the factory, the vehicles turn off a paved road onto a dusty plain and struggle with the uneven terrain and fine sand. One tank gets stuck for a spell. “So much for rolling right on in,” says Captain Brian Chontosh, who heads the infantrymen of India Company. But they are protected. The deep percussion of artillery impacting the target area booms through the night, sending a huge black cloud into the sky. Aerial surveillance spots a pickup truck with a mounted machine gun moving in from the west. From above comes a deep rumbling sound. “Basher took it out,” says a radio operator in Chontosh’s carrier. Insurgents seen trying to set up a mortar position are killed with a TOW missile fired by another company. Around midnight, as the convoy approaches the factory, the Americans take gunfire from the upper floors and off both flanks. The shooters are immediately silenced by tank shells and heavy machine guns. India Company grunts dismount and move through the factory and surrounding buildings. There are no further exchanges.

Chontosh sets up a command post in the sand and lights a cigarette. “It’s time for a defensive mind-set now,” he says, settling back to await the insurgents’ reaction. On a screen with a live satellite feed, he monitors movement in the surrounding area. There isn’t much to see. Word from headquarters is that communications intercepts suggest the insurgents thought this was in fact the big showdown and had congregated in the middle of the city. But other than random bursts of small-arms fire, which is met with heavy fusillades, there is little action at the soda factory. Chontosh meets with the 3/5 commander, Lieut. Colonel Patrick J. Malay. They agree that things are looking good, but Malay says, “Let’s not press our luck” by staying too long and “letting someone get lucky with a mortar.” Twenty minutes later, they head out.

By the end of last week’s mission, Marines and Iraqi soldiers began to relax the checkpoints they had set up around the city. The military gamesmanship in Ramadi and Fallujah gave the U.S. useful information about the insurgents but certainly did not eliminate them. Company commanders know it will be a long struggle and that this is only one piece of it. No single battle can settle everything.

The U.S. believes its Fallujah bombing campaign has killed some top al-Zarqawi operatives, and military officials hope the latest mission will hamper his network’s ability to operate. But the insurgency has shown a clear ability to regenerate itself after losses. And the rebels continue to adapt their tactics, adding TNT to their IEDs, for instance, to make them more lethal. In Ramadi they have begun attacking more at night; in Fallujah they have dug into defensive positions. A U.S. military battle-planning officer in Fallujah says the raid left a “big intel wake,” information that will be useful later, he says, when the military moves to retake the city. No one can say when that will be. Corpsman Scott Pribble, a Navy medic with the 3/5, had said before last week’s operation that he hoped he wouldn’t be busy that night. He wasn’t. But when asked about the eventual fight for control of Fallujah, he said, “Oh, we’ll be busy then.”

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