WASHINGTON, Iraq, March 6 (UPI) -- Second of two parts
U.S. Lt. Col. Jim Donnellan's 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment has lost at least 23 Marines in battle and to IEDs so far in the city of Haditha, most of them in September and October.
"We've had some tough losses. A lot of them. And they've come in the more remote areas that we didn't have the combat power to get to as often as we wanted, and when you go, they have the larger IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," Donnellan said.
Donnellan's battalion of about 800 men is responsible for an area about 23 miles long and 14 miles wide, considerably smaller than the original AO before a second Marine battalion took up battle position across the Euphrates River in Barwanah. "In real estate you dominate you see much more hasty emplacement of IEDS" which are consequently less sophisticated and easier to spot. "The places you don't get to as often, they have time to put in the big ones."
Haditha is now, by Donnellan's admission, a police state.
"That's what it is, that's what it needs to be," he said.
Haditha, like Barwanah and Haglaniyah -- the other two towns in the triad -- is surrounded by a dirt berm topped with concertina wire and guards. There are two tightly controlled entrances, and no cars are allowed to drive in the town proper.
The U.S. military built the berms in December and January, part of a "clear, hold and build" operation called "al Majid" to bring this critical area under coalition and Iraqi police control.
Unlike the clearing of Tallulah -- an extremely violent battle that engaged some 10,000 Marines and resulted in nearly 2,000 dead Iraqi fighters -- and Tal Afar, in which the town was emptied and every building searched -- the clearing in the Haditha Triad was carried out with the people still in their homes.
It is, according to a Donnellan and other Marine officers, a maturing of counter-insurgency tactics.
"For this phase of the war if we're still kicking in doors and going house to house and telling the entire city to get out things are pretty bleak," Donnellan siad. "There may be a couple of places that in the future still need that as we find an enclave or two."
The clearing served more as an advertisement that the U.S. Marines and the reconstituted Haditha police department -- comprised of a charismatic local chief and 200 officers, many of them Shi'ites from southern Iraq -- would now be exerting their will over the city, rather than the insurgents.
"We didn't anticipate finding a lot (of weapons) in their homes during the clear(ing) because they've all gotten smarter than that," he said.
The caches that were found -- and they were substantial -- were in wadis, palm groves and sheds where there was plausible deniability as to whom they belonged.
Successful campaigns to pacify cities in Iraq follow a general pattern: terrorists and insurgents have to be killed, captured, pushed out of town or pushed underground through a clearing operation. Then locals need to believe that U.S. and Iraqi government forces are capable of keeping the adversary at bay.
If their confidence grows, they share information that further roots out the adversary. Gradually markets open and normalcy takes hold. The adversary launches counterattacks, but if public confidence in coalition forces remain, the adversary can no longer maintain a foot hold. It is not peace by any stretch of an American imagination, but it is stability. That is the goal.
"Eighty, 90 percent of the time you win on the intangibles. It's a battle of wills. I tell all the Sunnis that will listen that all the time. It's just a big ugly game of pushball right now. We've got all our guys behind the ball. They're not gonna physically roll over the 200 plus Iraqi police we have or the Marines. It's gonna be the people who say, ' I just can't do it. It's certainly not in Marine language to ever use that term."
Progress in security is verifiable. In the first week after the 2/3 took over Haditha there were 22 attacks in the town. That's down to one or two attacks a week since the clearing operation.
Anecdotally, it appears that things are improving. Local residents line up early outside the battalion's civil affairs office to get permits to drive and do infrastructure work; one group of men carry a sign that says "Don't shoot, water men." They will be fixing a broken pipe on the American base downtown, something that would not have happened last fall. To cooperate with the occupation would have meant risking their lives.
On this day, a U.S. captain took a small group of Marines down to the souk to procure a hot lunch of lamb on a stick.
"We were there enjoying our kebabs in the exact place I lost my first Marine," said Echo Co. commander Capt. Matt Tracy. "It was phenomenal, laughing and joking with the shopkeepers who three months ago would have been terrified of being seen in the same location as us even three months ago. Victory, I'm telling ya! It's right there!"
"We're inside the tent," Donnellan cautioned. "That doesn't mean we can't blow it."