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thedrifter
11-15-05, 03:44 PM
November 21, 2005
Many run; few hits
Expected insurgent gunfights never arrive as Marines start operation
By Gordon Trowbridge
Times staff writer

AL QAIM, Iraq — The shooting started just a few blocks into Husaybah.

At the start of the Marine Corps’ biggest operation in Iraq since the fall of Fallujah, Kilo Company was under fire. Snipers hiding in a mosque and a neighboring house rained bullets on Marines below.

In seconds, the insurgents’ gunmen hit two people — Kilo’s company gunnery sergeant and a civilian, Marine Corps Times photojournalist Rick Kozak.

With Gunnery Sgt. Bill Bodette’s hand shattered by gunfire, Operation Steel Curtain — a 3,500-troop effort to clear insurgents from the towns of Husaybah and Karabilah on the Syrian border — was off to a violent start for Kilo, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. Husaybah, an insurgent stronghold where Marines have fought a series of bloody skirmishes over the last 18 months, was living up to its reputation.

But during a week of back-breaking house-to-house searches and nerve-wracking searches for bombs planted by insurgents, the expected gunfights never came. Husaybah — a city without significant coalition presence for more than a year — proved surprisingly tame. The insurgent forces believed to be in the towns either were far fewer than the several hundred that Marines had expected — or they had melted away.

“We fooled ’em,” said Kilo’s commander, Capt. Brendan Heatherman, as Steel Curtain was winding down. “They expected us to come from the east, and the first day or two, we caught a few by surprise. But most of them ran.”

“For all the preaching these guys do on their Web sites about their cause, they sure don’t seem to put their money where their mouth is,” said Staff Sgt. J.C. Knight, platoon sergeant for Kilo’s 1st Platoon.

“They don’t want to fight much.”

Surprise attack from west

At Steel Curtain’s heart was deception.

For a month, Marines had manned a line along a dry creek bed, or wadi.

That creek bed, named Emerald Wadi, runs south from the Euphrates River through the center of Karabilah. For two weeks, Kilo’s Marines had expected to march west across Emerald Wadi, pushing through insurgent positions decimated by sniper and cannon fire and dozens of airstrikes.

The insurgents, commanders were confident, expected the same thing.

Instead, more than 2,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops swung across the desert from Camp Al Qaim, 3/6’s headquarters southeast of Karabilah, to Camp Gannon, a Marine outpost hard on Iraq’s border with Syria.

Before dawn on Nov. 5, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, began maneuvering in a neighborhood called the 440 District — so named because it contains 440 homes. Marines from 3/6 took up positions just inside the city, waiting for the 2/1 to move through the 440 District, before pushing east as well.

Almost as soon as 3/6 began moving around noon, the firing from the mosque began.

Bodette and Kozak, who were standing behind an M1 Abrams tank, suffered relatively minor wounds. Kozak was treated for a wound to the face and returned to the battlefield two days later; Bodette, whose hand was badly injured, was evacuated to a hospital at Balad Air Base.

Losing the company gunny is never easy, but Bodette’s powerful personality made him especially key. Bodette, who earned a Bronze Star with a combat “V” during 3/6’s deployment to Afghanistan last year, pushed and prodded Kilo’s Marines with a voice like a Brillo pad and a boisterous sense of humor.

But in a week of combat, Kilo’s headquarters and supply tracking continued to move smoothly. Gunnery Sgt. Felix Hernandez, the platoon sergeant for Kilo’s Weapons Platoon, immediately filled the void.

“That’s how we train and how we fight,” said company 1st Sgt. William Thurber. “If one man goes down, there’s another one to take his place.”

“Of course we miss gunny. It hurts,” Heatherman said.

“But we’ve got people who can step up and fill that void.”

Lots of weapons found

By the afternoon of Nov. 6, Husaybah had quieted to the point that Marines began thinking the insurgents had pulled back to the east, hoping to find better fighting positions deeper into Husaybah or even farther back in Karabilah.

“We’ve had a little less contact than I thought we would,” said 2nd Lt. Geoffrey Newton, commander of Kilo’s 3rd Platoon. “A couple of extended firefights the first day, but it’s been quiet since — which leads me to believe it’ll be pretty dense as we move forward.”

But instead of insurgents, Kilo was finding weapons.

Newton’s platoon searched a house containing a Russian-made anti-aircraft gun, a pickup with a gun mount welded in the cargo bed, rifles and ammunition, along with blindfolds and a pair of handcuffs.

Roughly an hour later, the platoon and a bomb-sniffing dog discovered a weapons cache buried in a courtyard — piles of mortar shells and rockets, stacks of ammunition, dozens of vests with ammo-carrying pockets, still encased in plastic wrap.

Along with weapons and traps, the company was finding families. Lots of them. Estimates before the operation were that no more than 5,000 of Husaybah’s 30,000 residents remained in town.

“We’ve seen lots more than I expected,” said Pfc. Willis Tomblin of Jackson, Ohio.

“They seem scared at first. We try as best we can to make sure they’re smiling when we leave.”

Holding the ground

By Nov. 10, the two battalions had cleared all of Husaybah and much of Karabilah, leaving only an area of Karabilah called the Shark Fin for its dorsal-like appearance on the map.

As that day dawned, 3/6 planned to sweep north into farmland between the town and the Euphrates, combing through refugee camps and camping in the fields that evening — the Marine Corps’ 230th birthday — for an attack south into the city at first light on Nov. 11.

Instead, 2/1, which was finishing a sweep through Karabilah’s western neighborhoods, moved faster than hoped.

At noon, as Heatherman stood surrounded by cornfields and sunflower patches, 3/6’s commander, Lt. Col. Julian Alford, rode up in a Humvee, opened the door, and told Heatherman, “We attack in an hour.”

A quick march to attack positions just north of the town was accompanied by an occasionally confused march into Karabilah, which unlike Husaybah’s neat grid of streets, is a warren of alleys, shattered walls and abandoned homes.

If Husaybah was more populated than expected, Karabilah was a ghost town. Families and insurgents had both fled.

Instead, Kilo found more improvised bombs.

The courtyard of an Iraqi police station — once a fighting position for insurgents that had been caved in by an airstrike — contained dozens of rockets, mortars and other explosives; the controlled detonation to destroy them threw concrete hundreds of feet into the air.

Just a few blocks away, two Army explosive ordnance disposal experts, Staff Sgts. Mark Palmer and Danny Brown, were defusing two houses, back to back, that were wired with explosives in walls and doorways.

Another bomb took the life of a 3/6 Marine near sundown on Nov. 10, just inside the city, the second Marine fatality of the operation.

As Steel Curtain began to wind down, Heatherman said he wasn’t the least concerned that the brawl with insurgents that his Marines expected had failed to materialize.

“This is a success,” Heatherman said. “It’s a success because we took the ground, and we’re going to hold it.

“They need to fight us to get back in here, and they won’t do that.

“The good people of these towns who have either been run out of town or living in fear can come back,” Heatherman said.

“We hold the ground, and we’re not leaving.”

Ellie