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08-06-06, 04:27 PM
Night Mission
By GORDON DILLOW
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Sunday, August 6, 2006

Ar-Rutbah, Iraq Just after midnight, the night patrol embarks from its small but heavily bunkered and concertina-wired outpost on the edge of this small town in southwestern Al Anbar Province. They are 10 young American Marines, venturing into the darkness on the other side of the world.

The Marines are part of 1st Platoon of Alpha Company of the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, home-based in Twenty-nine Palms. They're accompanied by an Iraqi interpreter, and a journalist is tagging along.

For the journalist it will be a brief but exhausting and somewhat fearful foray into the night. Although this is a relatively quiet sector of Iraq, everyone knows the insurgents are out there, in the town; two days earlier they lobbed some mortar rounds at Marine positions.

But for the Marines, loading up their weapons and walking the spooky streets of an Iraqi town is routine, and unexceptional. For them, it's another day at the office.

The mission tonight is twofold: to search a quadrant of the town for curfew violators - nationwide the curfew is 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. - and to show the local residents and the insurgents that the Marines are unafraid, unintimidated, that they own the night and whatever ground they choose to walk on. On the other side of town another squad of Alpha Co. Marines will be doing the same thing simultaneously.

In the game of carrot and stick being played here and throughout Iraq, the effort by American forces to both goad and lead the local Iraqis into taking responsibility for their own security, the night patrols are part of the stick.

There is a briefing, a radio communications check, a last-minute check of weapons - M-16s, grenade launchers, squad automatic weapons, 9 mm pistols - and then the patrol files out of the Marine outpost and walks "outside the wire," the concertina wire line of demarcation between the Marines' small base and what is called "bandit country."

The plan is to move along the outskirts of the town, enter it and then sweep back up the town streets on a roughly parallel path. For reasons that will become clear, it would not do to enter and leave the town along the same route.

Once outside the wire the Marines spread out, walking slowly across dusty, open, rock-strewn ground, their heads on swivels, looking everywhere. I am unarmed - not by choice but by Defense Department edict; embedded reporters are not allowed to carry weapons - and so while it is unlikely that local insurgents will choose to directly confront the Marines this night, I stick close to the patrol leader, Cpl. Jason Servera.

Servera is 23, from Glendale, a cool, lean, taciturn combat veteran now on his third tour in Iraq. He inspires confidence.

The Marines move stealthily, quietly - the scrape and rattle of a loose rock under my clumsy civilian feet earns me a backward glare from Cpl. Servera - but that's more a matter of habit and discipline than necessity. The Marines' presence is no secret, because the town's packs of semi-feral dogs smell us from a quarter-mile away. They rush out of the town to stand on dirt hillocks and garbage piles, wolf-eyed and gaunt, barking and howling at the intruders - that is, us.

The dogs and the Marines seem to have an arrangement. The dogs will bark until a Marine bends over and grabs a rock and hurls it at them, after which the dogs will shut up for exactly 15 seconds. Then they will happily bark and bark and bark until the next flying rock.

We enter the town and the Marines move slowly along the unpaved streets, taking up positions at the corners, checking the beat-up cars parked in dirt driveways and peering into the courtyards of the stone-and-mortar buildings. The Marines are utterly silent, communicating with whispers into radios or, more often, much-rehearsed hand signals: Stop, go, stay, look, cover me.

Some of the Marines carry fliers, printed in Arabic, that explain why the traffic control points leading into town have been closed - the Marines closed the checkpoints to all but essential services after the mortar attacks - and ask the people of the town to support the Iraqi army and government. They post them on some buildings and leave them on some car windshields, like coupons for "free" carpet-cleaning back home.

Two Marines start to tack a flier onto the door of a walled courtyard, a courtyard dominated by a five-story-tall minaret decorated with green and white fluorescent lights and loudspeakers to call the faithful to prayer. Cpl. Servera sees them and hand-signals an emphatic "No!" followed by a half-circling motion with two hands that means "mosque." The insurgents routinely post their propaganda on the mosque walls; the Americans are not allowed to.

The patrol moves on, through streets covered with loose stones and garbage and noxious swamps of open sewage. It has been two years since I last accompanied Marines on patrol through an Iraqi town, and I had forgotten just how squalid the towns often are. It is, in large part, a lack of forward vision; garbage is tossed out and sewage discharged with apparently no thought that it will still be there tomorrow.

Finally, after about an hour, the patrol reaches the far edge of the town. They have seen no one, but they know the Iraqis - and any insurgents who might have been watching - have seen them. To that extent, the mission is accomplished.

We are almost back to the Marines' outpost, tired and sweated through our clothes - or at least I am - when from several hundred yards behind us comes a tremendous "boom!" We look back and see a dark gray smoke cloud rising up from the ground over which we had just walked.

It is an IED, an "improvised explosive device," the No. 1 health hazard to American Marines and soldiers in Iraq. They are usually made from artillery or mortar shells, sometimes with propane gas tanks attached to increase the fireball effect. The immediate suspicion is that an insurgent had planted the IED in our tracks, hoping that the next patrol would move along the same path and could be blown to oblivion. Presumably, as sometimes happens with homemade bombs, it had gone off prematurely.

The next morning a group of Iraqis will carry a man to the Marines' traffic control point, a man with part of his jaw blown off and his legs and chest peppered with shrapnel. He will claim that he was just standing there, minding his own business - this at 2 a.m., after curfew, in Iraq - when he got blown up. The actual assumption is that he planted the IED, probably for pay - the insurgents will pay locals about $200 to dig holes and plant the bombs - and inadvertently got blown up for his efforts.

The Marines hate IEDs and the people who plant them; they wish that the wounded man had gotten even more blown up than he did.

In any event, the IED gives the otherwise routine patrol a sense of the unusual and the dangerous - which in fact is what the Marines crave. That may be hard for us to understand. But for many of these Marines, this is their first tour in Iraq - and for now, at least, they are eager to fight, to test themselves in combat.

The IED explosion will have another impact. As a show of force, another waving of the stick, a couple of hours after the explosion the Marines call in an F-18 jet to swoop over the town at low level, "on the deck," dropping flares as it goes. The rumble and scream of the jet tumbles the Marines from the patrol out of their cots at the TCP; presumably, it rattles the townsfolk as well. And the next morning, Marines in light armored vehicles, bristling with weaponry, will encircle and look down menacingly on the town.

That may seem harsh and coercive to Americans safely abed at home, but by Iraq standards it is remarkably restrained. It is also necessary. In this dangerous country, where strength is respected and weakness held in contempt, attacks must be answered or the advantage shifts.

And it seems to work. Later a local imam will approach a Marine Civil Affairs Group team attached to the Marines' TCP and ask to talk.

How can we stop all this? the imam wants to know. How can we bring peace to Ar-Rutbah?

It's a small start, a tiny opening, a tentative channel of communications. But the hope is there.

The hope is there that after the stick, the people of Ar-Rutbah will finally, at long last, reach for the carrot.