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Making Tribal War Work for the U.S. in Iraq

5 minute read
Christopher Allbritton/Huseybah

Operation Steel Curtain opened up Saturday morning as two Marine battalions made a stealthy entrance into the outskirts of Huseybah, a smugglers’ haven near the Syrian border that U.S. officials believe is the latest stronghold for insurgents loyal to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Echo, Fox and Golf companies, from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines took the southern slice of the city, which runs almost two miles west to east, while units from the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines moved into the northern half. Embedded with Fox and Golf companies of the 2/1, This reporter saw little fighting in the first three days of the operation, but had advanced about halfway through the city by mid-day Monday. By then, one Marine from the 3/6 had been killed and several others from the 2/1 wounded. The number of insurgents killed was unknown, with estimates ranging from 36 to 80.

The Iraqis fighting alongside the Marines in Huseybah may have been familiar to both the U.S. forces and the insurgents. Many members of the Iraqi Army’s Desert Protectors unit are from the al-Mahal tribe in the al-Qaim area. These men had fought against the Marines of 2/1 last year when U.S. forces first moved into the region. But after the Marines had left, the al-Mahal lost a tribal dustup with the Karabilah tribe, which had allied with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq group. So, the al-Mahal were kicked out of Huseybah and the jihadis moved in. Now, the al-Mahal are back helping their erstwhile enemies, the Marines, drive out their tribal foe—most of the fighters resisting Operation Steel Curtain are presumed to be from the Karabilah tribe. Ubaidi, about nine miles east of Huseybah, is considered a stronghold of foreigners.

The first direct engagement came during a dusk sandstorm on the edge of a housing development where they had dug in to await the Marines. While talking with a family in a nearby house, members of Fox Company’s 3rd Platoon came under heavy fire from the militants. At his lookout post on the roof, Lance Corp. Manuel Beccerarodriguez ducked as 7.62mm rounds snarled past his head. Staff Sergeant Michael Ventrone ordered his Marines to get on the roof and fight their way out of the ambush.

“Get your ass up there,” he yelled to his men as the dashed up stairs and dived onto the roof to get cover. He screamed into his radio for tank support, and moments later, M-1A1 tanks advanced on the school and began shelling, sending up huge plumes of smoke and leaving gaping holes in the cinderblock buildings. On the roof, members of 3rd platoon emptied magazines into the enemy positions, while other squads joined in from adjacent buildings.

A sudden whoosh signaled a rocket-propelled grenade heading straight for the 3rd platoon position. But bad luck for the militants: it struck a lamppost before it could reach them, exploding harmlessly.

After 20 minutes, it was over. The tanks had collapsed most of the buildings in the school complex on top of those militants who hadn’t fled. Those who had tried to run got a nasty surprise: “We started dropping 203s [small grenades] behind them so when they ran, they ran into steel,” Ventrone said. “They picked the wrong time to attack us. We had two tanks.”

The firefight at the school was the most dramatic action of the first three days. House by house, block by block, the Marines advanced, methodically securing every building they passed and asking residents to relocate to abandoned buildings to the rear for a few days. One house cleared by Fox Company contained insurgent propaganda showing photos of the same Marine company when they had fought in Fallujah in April 2004. Another contained a body that had been booby-trapped. Echo company also found two weapons caches.

But now, the dusty town is almost deserted. Of the 30,000 people who reportedly live here, only about 5,000 remain, and the 300 to 500 militants the Marines were expecting to find seem either to have fled or are lying low. Of the 200 men detained, only one was foreign: a Kuwaiti.

Jasim, a member of the Desert Protectors from Huseybah, said most of the foreign fighters had now fled to Baiji, Samara and Ramadi, which matches intelligence received by the staff of 2/1 commander’s Lt. Col. Robert Oltman.

“The insurgents go where the presence isn’t,” he said. The U.S. military plans to go into towns where the insurgency has been active, secure them and establish “firm bases” in each one manned by U.S. and Iraqi troops. The plan, said Col. Stephen Davis, commander of the Regimental Combat Team-2, which is directing this battle, is to deny the insurgents the ability to create sanctuaries, such as they had done in Fallujah before November 2004. This is the “ink-spot” theory of counterinsurgency that has been gaining traction in recent months—the U.S. takes an area with overwhelming force, then holds it for six months to a year before moving on to the next insurgent strongholds, spreading like an ink spot across a tablecloth.

“These guys don’t want to die,” said Lt. Kevin Graves, the communications officer for Golf Company. “They’re not like the guys we met in Fallujah last year. Those guys wanted to kill Americans and they didn’t care if they died.”

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