March 1, 2006  

‘It will be better when you leave’

In two Iraqi cities, signs of progress and frustration

“Another day fighting the war on drugs.” So commented a Marine Corps platoon commander as he stood atop a dirt- and rock-strewn hill near Jubbah, Iraq, watching his men hike an 50-mile sweep south along the Euphrates River valley. As if on a massive police manhunt, the Marines of 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, walked nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, searching rock piles and palm groves for insurgent weapons stashes.

It’s not exactly what these hard-charging Marines wanted to do during their two-month deployment. During their time ashore, the men of Bravo Company, 1/2, had encountered little contact with the enemy. Except for a short firefight against an estimated band of three insurgents firing AK47s at the nearly vacant company command post in Hit on Jan. 24, the Marines’ rifles and machine guns stayed quiet.

The leathernecks were itching for a fight, but all they’d face was a couple of improvised explosive device (IED) strikes. Where were the terrorist “ratlines” everyone had been talking about? Why weren’t any of the insurgents in this “restive” province coming out to engage?

More than 40 miles down the Euphrates, in Ramadi, the capital city of Anbar, the scene was not that different. The colonel in charge of the Army Brigade Combat Team that commands the Corps’ 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, called Ramadi “the most dangerous place in Iraq.”

Still, after a month of patrolling the streets in armored Humvees and countless raids that turned up nothing, little enemy activity was evident. The Marines and soldiers occupying Ramadi would fastidiously comb the debris-cluttered streets for hidden bombs. The explosive ordnance disposal vehicles with their hydraulic arms and remote-controlled robot diffusers uncovered ever more sophisticated IEDs; where one would be either blown up or collected for evidence, another would show up in nearly the same place the next day.

Any time an enemy sniper or foot soldier took a potshot at a Marine or Army outpost, it would be met with a seconds-long fusillade of rifle, machine gun and grenade fire.

“That’s got to be the gov center,” one staff noncommissioned officer said after a particularly long nighttime burst of fire drove us out of our squad bay. “They’re always running out of ammunition over there,” he shrugged, shaking his head in what looked like disgust tinged with a bit of jealousy.

There are more than 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, 23,000 of whom are Marines. But even in the most insurgent-infested places in Iraq, the troops aren’t doing much. The Fallujahs and Mosuls and Tall Afars are history. The insurgents seem to be lying low. They’re not coming out in great numbers to confront U.S. troops. They’re not mounting as many effective IED attacks.

Sometimes it seems the American forces are searching for things to do — going on patrol for the sake of going on patrol. At some point that patrol is going to hit an IED — it’s a numbers game. But it’s unlikely that a patrol was specifically targeted. It’s just bad luck.

Could the insurgents be executing a similar strategy to the Taliban in Afghanistan? As Sean D. Naylor reported in the February issue of AFJ, Special Forces officers who work closely with tribal militias in Afghanistan’s most remote provinces warn that the former regime that protected al-Qaida is lying in wait, marshalling resources for the day America leaves. The absence of significant Taliban-led violence during Afghanistan’s elections last fall was an attempt to lull the coalition into a sense of accomplishment, Special Forces officers fear.

The much-heralded “cease-fire” during Iraq’s parliamentary elections Dec. 15 could be interpreted the same way.

Though few military commanders in Iraq have come around to that idea, it’s hard to dismiss the prospect. Clearly, the key to a U.S. exit from Iraq is the establishment of a competent, aggressive, well-led Iraqi army and the continued progress of electoral politics.

Signs of either were mixed. The Iraqi Army, which in some cases was bold and decisive, still has a long way to go. And though Sunnis came out in greater numbers for December’s parliamentary elections, suspicion grows of the Shiite majority.

So, with an apparent lull in the insurgency, a fitfully maturing political process and an Iraqi Army slowly but surely hardening into a viable defense force, American troops are driving around town looking for IEDs and humping 50 miles searching for weapons in a country where practically every junk pile hides a collection of ancient AK47 magazines and rusty 60mm mortar rounds.