View Full Version : On the front line in Iraq
11-28-06, 06:38 AM
On the front line in Iraq
By CBS News
For an hour and a half on Monday, Sunni rebels went at an Iraqi government headquarters and two U.S. military outposts in the town of Ramadi. They used everything they had - suicide car bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons.
U.S. troops finally turned them back, and there were no reports of American casualties. But the battle underlined the fact that the insurgency is alive and well in that area west of Baghdad. which is why CBS News correspondent Lara Logan went there and filed this report.
As you head into downtown Ramadi, you're left in no doubt this is enemy territory for U.S. forces. The Marine commander in charge calls it, "the toughest piece of dirt in Iraq" - so tough that every time his Marines leave their base, they know there's a good chance they won't make it back.
Just days before one patrol, four men did not. They were killed by a roadside bomb. The unit had only been on the ground a month.
"They take cover from snipers where they can - and constantly keep moving," says one Marine.
Capt. Andrew Del Gaudio is only 30, but he's a 13-year Marine and is in his third tour of duty in Iraq. That experience counts as he leads his men along tense streets to a house where they believe a suspected insurgent lives.
The family doesn't seem at all surprised when their home is suddenly invaded by the Marines … it's something you have to get used to when you live "on the toughest piece of dirt in Iraq".
"Any weapons we can take off the street, it's always gonna be OK for us," Del Gaudio says. "The last thing we want is to get shot with it later."
While the Marines search every room in the house, Jeffrey Gurski, a 21-year-old private who's in his first tour in Iraq, is pulling guard duty on the roof.
But does he know who he's fighting?
"Yes and no," he says. "You have some guys shooting at you - and five minutes later, the same guy could be walking on the street like a regular civilian … and you would never know that this guy was shooting at you."
Inside the house, the Marines are trying to calm two young boys they've brought here from th3e house next door after detaining their father Nothing the Marines do seems to help. It's only when the boys join their Iraqi neighbors in the next-door room that they finally fall silent.
The marines know every minute they spend here exposes them to possible attack. "Everything here is a damn threat - snipers, machine gunfire on a regular basis, rockets and IED's," Del Gaudio says.
They face all those threats as they head out, knowing they still have to make it back to their base at the local government center. As they finally approach the gates, the marines throw smoke grenades to mask their movements.
They may be home - but even here they're not quite safe. They regularly get attacked inside the base, where the local Iraqi government is housed. But on this day, at least, the Marines of Company K were able to breathe a sigh of relief.
11-29-06, 03:11 PM
An Ithacan Inside the War Zone
By: Mark Finkelstein
Camp Al Taqaddum, Anbar Province, Iraq - When I last wrote, my group was heading out of Baghdad on our way to Fallujah. Before we left, I had the chance to privately interview Dr. Ali Aldabbagh, chief spokesman to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuria Al Maliki. Aldabbagh opined that a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops would be "a great gift to the terrorists." He also expressed the view that Shia leader Muktada Al Sadr had shown restraint, and that like it or not, "he is a player." That U.S. troops attacked some of Al Sadr's forces the very next day indicates some difference of opinion on the point between the two governments.
At Fallujah, we were happy to find that just down the row of pre-fab huts, where we bunked, was an Internet unit that permitted the ultimate for reporters - the ability to directly connect our own laptops rather than transfer items to established computers via a flash drive. This might sound like a bit of inside baseball, but it's a real insight into media coverage in a war zone. The problem isn't finding compelling stories - virtually every person you meet has one. But being almost constantly on the move, and having limited Internet access, a reporter's biggest challenge is to get stories back to editors, and ultimately to our readers.
Our morning at Fallujah began with a briefing from a Colonel about operations. An underreported story is the extent to which the emphasis of the U.S. military focus here is not simply carrying out operations themselves, but training Iraqi police and military forces to assume responsibility for national security. Two years ago, Fallujah was the site of the largest battle of the war. And while some 150 U.S. troops lost their lives, it's estimated that perhaps 100 times that many insurgents died. In the wake of that experience, insurgents now rarely directly engage U.S. or Iraqi troops. In Ramadi, not far from Fallujah, combined U.S./Iraqi forces have been able to pacify significant parts of the city, but sporadic insurgent actions make the job of bringing security and stability to the entire city a difficult challenge. Even military bases such as Fallujah are not entirely immune. Virtually every day one or more mortars are lobbed onto the base - one person was killed the day before we arrived.
At one point we witnessed a martial arts training session. All Marines must attain basic tan-belt proficiency, but this was an advanced course for Marines who would ultimately become instructors themselves. The day's class called for each man to take turns fighting an instructor in the middle of the mat, while ringed around in groups of two, the students performed a variety of grueling exercises, from squatting a heavy punching bag to strenuous floor exercises.
I asked the chief instructor if there was some kind of ladder system - a competition among the students to determine the best in class. He explained that to the contrary, the program is all about building team work and inter-dependence.
At the end of the day we had the opportunity to interview the base's Commanding Officer, Marine Colonel Bristol, who, incidentally, was the creator of the Marine Corps martial arts program we witnessed. Bristol is a crusty, preternaturally intense man, soft-spoken but with a flame of intensity that has you leaning in to capture his every word. I put to him, not without a certain trepidation, the statement that Marine Gen. Zilmer had made in September to the effect that there were sufficient troops to train Iraqis but not to defeat the counter-insurgency. He responded by speaking of the era of instant gratification in which we live. In everything from fast food to turfing Saddam out of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, we have come to expect fast results. He is convinced that the military goal can be accomplished - given the time to do it. That said, just yesterday I saw a news item reporting that 2,200 additional Marines are being sent to Anbar Province.
During the course of the day I had the chance to speak with Capt. Duncan's superior officer, by the name of Major Player. With a handle like that, you wonder if he would even aspire to become a colonel. Chatting, I learned that the Major had attended Ithaca College. He mentioned that his decision to join the Marines after graduation came as a surprise to his fellow theater arts students.
We headed out that night, on our way to Camp Habbaniyah. The trip, which was about 40 or 50 miles, included an unplanned overnight stay at another base - Al Taqaddum - and took more than a day. Such are the vagaries of transport in a war zone; and in the face of them, we've learned it's better to maintain a sense of humor than to curse the fates. When it's past midnight and the last flight until tomorrow has left, there's really not much more to do than haul your gear to the tent city and get whatever sleep you can. The final part of the trip was made by land. Passing by some petrified dunes carved by the wind, suddenly, almost miraculously, we saw a huge expanse of water - Lake Habbaniyah - so vast that even from some elevation the far shore was invisible. The land trip was largely across U.S. military bases, with the exception of a run across a bridge connecting two bases that required transfer to an armored Humvee.
The focus of the Marine's Military Transition Team at Habbaniyah is training the Iraqi Army 1st Division. We stayed in the "British Hotel," which is precisely what the facility was when the British were there, dating to the 1930s. Roald Dahl was based here at one time. I made a connection with Navy Lieutenant [equivalent to the Army rank of captain] Eric Torres, who had been seconded to the Marines. He trains Iraqi recruits in small arms - and boats. Camp Habbaniyah sits on the banks of the Euphrates, and the river is used by insurgents for a variety of transport and supply operations. On the evening of our arrival, Torres gave me an impromptu, hour-long introduction to the various small arms he instructs. Torres' enthusiasm for his work is infectious. He mentioned that while his Iraqi recruits are only required to spend four hours on the range, they will often spend as much as 12 hours honing skills.
That evening I met with Marine Col. Juan Ayala, the senior adviser to the Iraqi general in charge of the 1st Division. Ayala told a story of being out on a patrol that was hit by an IED, wounding both Iraqi and American troops. A surgeon appeared in the waiting area outside the hospital operating room where several of the wounded were being treated, covered in blood. "Whose blood is that?" someone asked. "It is all our blood!" replied the Colonel, expressing the bond that had developed between Iraqis and Americans.
The next day, Torres had us out on the Euphrates in three patrol boats, participating in an exercise in which the Iraqis were being trained in the technique of boarding potentially hostile craft on the river. Torres pointed out a cluster of buildings a couple thousand yards upriver known as an insurgent stronghold, assuring us that we were out of range. We saw two U.S. helicopters fly by, and a few minutes later came a report that the helicopters had been fired on from the ground by either RPG or shoulder-fired missile.
Walking back to our vehicle after the boat training, we happened on young Private Dominguez up in the turret of an armored vehicle, her machine gun trained on the far bank. She explained that under the rules of engagement, she is not permitted to fire until a suspected insurgent brings his weapon up in preparation to fire in her direction.
The boat-training exercise was a highlight, but my biggest disappointment of the trip also came at Habbaniyah. As someone who has supported this war, part of my motivation in making this trip was to put myself on the line in at least some miniscule measure compared to those who serve here. Though there is danger everywhere here, a major goal for me was to go out on at least one military patrol. And, Lt. Torres had invited me to go out on a boat patrol that night into hostile territory. Staying would require a change in itinerary, and while Public Affairs Officer Capt. Turner did what he could to persuade the powers-that-be to let us stay another night - or even to let me stay behind while the rest of my group went ahead - the request was denied.
And so it was that we continued our journey to Camp Al Asad, further west into Anbar Province. At one point I chatted with Navy Corpsman Romero. Corpsmen are the equivalent of Army medics, providing emergency medical care to injured people on the battlefield. I asked Romero to describe the first time he had a chance to put his skills to use in a real-life situation.
He spoke of being out on a convoy that was hit by an IED. He was injured in the chin, neck and shoulder and knocked to ground. When he regained his bearings he realized that the ensuing fire was causing the ammo in a truck to "cook off" - firing shots randomly, and also that there were men worse injured than himself in the truck. He went back, helped retrieve the men, and treated them until finally passing out himself. Romero is 20 years old.
Passing by a small PX, I introduced myself to a young Marine who had attended Bushwick HS in Brooklyn, where for years my late father served as an assistant principal. Later, I met a Marine who attended John Bowne HS in Queens, where my mother was a guidance counselor for over a decade. Nice to make those connections.
I also spoke with a Lt. Col. and Lieutenant involved in training Iraqi troops. They mentioned that while basic training lasts only 45 days, it is sufficient to bring the recruits to an acceptable skill level for their initial duties. Although this is a Sunni area, most of the recruits are Shia, while the majority of officers are Shia.
Later in the day, I had an entire conference room of younger enlisted Marines to myself, coincidentally including many from New York - none from Tompkins County, but one hard-nosed fellow who had attended SUNY Cortland. He has one of the tougher jobs you can imagine - providing security to convoys of civilian contractors going "outside the wire" - into hostile territory. He spoke passionately of the experience of spending hours scouting ahead for IEDs, and the challenges of confronting potentially hostile gunmen under rules that require him to take a number of intermediary steps before opening fire himself.
Our final stop of the day was the Combat Logistical Battalion Surgical Hospital - the place where most of the seriously wounded from across the vast 32,000 square-mile Anbar battlefield are initially treated. They arrive by helicopter, and we weren't there more than a few minutes before word came that a flight was due in, bearing an injured Iraqi. I stood chatting near the helipad with two Navy corpsmen. They exchanged good-natured jibes about their respective home states of Maryland and Texas, but it was obvious that they took their work very seriously. A contingent of seven Marines also stood by.
No more than two minutes elapsed between the time the helicopter touched down and the injured man was inside receiving care - including time to check that the patient was not carrying weapons.
More than one staff member emphasized that all people wounded on the battlefield who are brought to the hospital, be they U.S. troops, civilian contractors or suspected insurgents, are provided the identical high standard of care. One staff surgeon with whom I spoke wore a patch bearing the likeness of Stich, the cartoon character, the surgeon's goal being to put at ease the Iraqi children the hospital occasionally treats.
Later, I spoke with Marine Sgt. David Tortora, from Rutherford, N.J., near Giant Stadium. Tortora is responsible for the Angel Room, the place where the deceased, referred to as angels by the hospital staff, are brought. He emphasized that matters are conducted in a highly-respectful, ceremonial manner. Said Tortora, now on his third tour of duty, having volunteered to extend his second stay: "It is tough, but we take pride in our work. Before I was assigned this duty, a number of my friends passed through this room. I want to make sure that those who pass through here under my watch are treated with the same dignity with which I know my friends were."
Word came that there were no flights available out of Al Asad that night, and so we had an unplanned day there on Sunday. With nothing on the schedule, I got in a good workout at the base gym. I might have been at Courtside Fitness in Ithaca but for the fact that relatively few people at home tote loaded M-16s around during their fitness routines.
Last night we began the first leg out of Iraq, attempting to get to either the Baghdad or Balad airports. We waited on the tarmac for an hour or so at Al Asad as two Humvees were carefully loaded on a C-130 that took us to Al Taqaddum. I might add that while temperatures soar to 120 and more here, at this time of year, cold is the challenge. It can be bitter, particularly when standing in exposed areas for extended periods.
We got to Al Taqaddum at about 9 p.m., and waited in a lounge until 2:30 a.m., when word came that sandstorms had ended any chance of moving on that night.
And so, I write from the Internet lounge here, hoping we'll be better off tonight. We'll be traveling Space "A" - for available - the military equivalent of standby. With luck we should be home for Thanksgiving.
It feels too soon to make any sweeping conclusions as to the rightness of our cause here. I can say that the sheer scope of our effort, in terms of people and materiel, is mind-boggling. I can also say that the frustration is an enemy who has understandably decided not to directly confront that might; and that pulling out quickly would surely plunge this country into violent chaos.
I spent the morning of Election Day, the day before I began this trip, at the Rotary Club pancake breakfast at the Women's Community Building in Ithaca. I brought along my camcorder and asked everyone I met what message they would like me to send to the troops. To a person, including many ardently opposed to the war, they asked me to express their respect and appreciation. In the course of my trip, I have sought to convey that message from Ithaca to the people I have met here.
Whatever people back home think of this war, they can, and should, be proud of the brave, determined men and women who, day in and day out, under the most difficult conditions imaginable, put themselves on the line.
Editor's note: Mark returned to Ithaca last week.
11-30-06, 08:14 AM
On patrol in Fallujah: Danger zone
BY JOE SWICKARD, Det. Free Press
Updated: 11/30/2006 2:20:42 AM
Marines' credo: Stop trouble before it kills
FALLUJAH, Iraq - "Patrollin', patrollin'," a turret gunner sang, encased in chicken wire like somebody in a carnival dunk tank as the line of Humvees growled out of Charlie Company's base camp. "We're patrollin' through Fallujah."
In the battle to keep order in this Sunni-dominated city in Anbar province, Charlie Company - about 200 men from the Michigan-based 1st Battalion of the 24th Marine Regiment - is the on-site boss, rolling the streets day and night to chase down or run off insurgents.
While other parts of Iraq are ripped apart by factions, and the sectarian violence in Baghdad worsens daily, the scene in Fallujah is different but no less deadly. The city has endured some of the bloodiest urban combat of the war. Now the Marines are fighting to keep Fallujah from becoming an insurgent stronghold again, as it was two years ago.
Making their home in a battered school administration building, the men of Charlie Company comprise the only unit that lives in the center of the city, where insurgents have killed scores of Marines with roadside bombs, ambushes and sniper fire.
With its sandbagged windows and cheap fluorescent lamps fighting a haze of cement dust, the place has an eerie, eternal twilight quality - like a casino, only with machine guns and bulletproof vests stacked up in the halls.
The men - students, sheriff's deputies, firefighters and even a personal banker who loves heavy metal music - say they'd rather make nice with the residents, but they don't waste time in confronting those who have other ideas.
"We'll be jumping out if somebody's mean-mugging us," Cpl. Anthony Tavormina, 22, of Toledo told members of his mounted patrol before they took to the streets on a recent day.
Mean-mugging - dirty looks, the evil eye or a hostile gesture - isn't tolerated by Charlie Company. When they see it on the streets, the men get in the Iraqi's face for aggressive questioning, ID checks and, for anyone who doesn't get it right, a possible trip to what's called the Wayne County Jail, the new detention facility at nearby Camp Baharia.
Cpl. Shawn Wilson, a 27-year-old Oakland County sheriff's deputy and former Detroit police officer, said going after insurgents and troublemakers is all about making sure the people of Fallujah have a chance at a better life.
"It's like working a block back home," he said. If a block has one good family and nine bad ones, you don't let the nine bad stop you from protecting the one.
"You treat that house with respect," he said.
Most of the residents want peace, said commanding officer Capt. Mike Mayne - a guy who is already legendary in the unit for asking a translator who said Fallujah was too dangerous whether he was a coward. But the broken windows theory of crime control applies here. Not tolerating the little stuff heads off the big problems later.
The Marines pare it down to the notion that, if somebody is dense enough to pick a fight with them, well, they're ready to go. "If they're nice, we're nice," said Sgt. Bryce Sobol, 25, a personal banker from Freeland. "If they get stupid, we get stupid."
No one doubts the dangers of Fallujah from snipers, from roadside bombs. But it doesn't have the death squads found in Baghdad, and the Marines are able to keep the worst violence under control.
When Charlie rolls, all other traffic stops. Drivers who ignore clear warnings can be met with deadly force.
Even toilets can be dangerous
In Fallujah, Charlie is an active verb: Consider a Saturday midday patrol with Cpl. Dennis Rodeman, 22, of Vermontville.
The 3rd Squad of the 3rd Platoon went to deliver a message to a corner gas station, the scene of a couple of grenade attacks on the unit, said Rodeman, a firefighter and international business student at Michigan State University.
Pulling up to the station where gas is sold from barrels and plastic jugs, the Marines jumped out and emptied the fuel into the street. The owner and attendants pleaded they had nothing to do with the grenades.
OK, Rodeman said, but there is still a price to pay, even if the bad guys just use the place as cover. "Any more grenade attacks," he said, "and we're going to burn down the gas station."
Rodeman shrugged off the contradiction of ending the encounter with thanks all around: "It's like going into your house, thrashing your bedroom and then saying, "Hey, let's go to lunch.' "
Under the constant threat of sniping by mujahideen insurgents, Charlie Company has learned that any step outside requires a helmet and full body armor - even a trip to a portable toilet. And you have to do the sniper dance - juking and dekeing so no one can get a good aim on you.
Even the Humvees dance. When the men are dismounted, the drivers roll the vehicles back and forth so a sniper can't line up a shot on a door to pick off a returning Marine.
But you can't dance past an IED - an improvised explosive device - like the roadside bomb that hit a patrol from the 3rd Squad of the 1st Platoon on Saturday night. The four-vehicle caravan was doing snaps and house calls - random quick searches of vehicles and homes - and checking known trouble spots.
Rolling under a crescent moon along Fran, a major east-west thoroughfare with a history of ambushes, the convoy passed a darkened Iraqi government building when the street went blindingly bright. An instant later, a flame ball erupted from the right curb, between the third and fourth vehicles, known as Vic 3 and Vic 4. White flames shot across the road in a sharp explosion.
The men quickly piled out of the Humvees, taking cover and setting up a perimeter. There were no casualties.
"All good. We're all good," they radioed each other.
But the men have to wait. The IED could be a setup, the attack followed with rockets, gunfire or another IED. Taking positions in a ruined concrete block building, Lance Cpl. Justin Dieting, 25, of Romeo and Lance Cpl. Enrique Rakowski, 25, of Manistee recalled attacks in which snipers picked off their buddies or insurgents fired rockets at them.
In the dark, the men's whispers wove together, recounting their experiences:
You're sitting in your Vic and the next thing stumbling empty-handed in the roadway. Your weapon's on the ground, the Humvee's burning, and everything's a little tilted and crazy.
You get a couple of days off, notification of a Purple Heart and wonder if the shrapnel still in your body will set off airport metal detectors.
Your dead partners never really leave Charlie. You feel them every time you pass the sites of their deaths, remember their wisecracks or hear a familiar tune.
After the area was secured and evidence collected by explosives teams, the patrol resumed, and men noted they'd passed that intersection at least once before that night.
The IED was a speed bump - a device set on a paved road and then detonated by a triggerman when a vehicle passes over it. A second sooner on the trigger, and Vic 3 would have gone up. A second later, Vic 4 would have been gutted and smoking.
That night, everybody, Marines and the bomber alike, made it back home.
Contact JOE SWICKARD at email@example.com.
Web Editor: John Bumgardner, Assignment Desk
12-06-06, 07:08 AM
Ramadi Marines on the front line against Al-Qaeda in Iraq
by Thibauld Malterre
Tue Dec 5, 1:36 PM ET
From the vantage point of the 17th Street security station, the grim vista of downtown Ramadi stretched out before Marine Corporal Anthony Bell in an apocalyptic expanse of bullet-riddled buildings.
"You have to watch for everything," said Bell of Alpha company, who at 21 is on his second tour in Iraq. "We already had different types of bombs, sniper attacks and a lot of small arms fire."
As he described his life in the shattered downtown of this urban battleground between US forces and Al-Qaeda in Iraq's restive western Al-Anbar province, a fusillade of shots rings out, followed by an explosion.
Just 150 meters (yards) away, Observation Post Firecracker was briefly attacked, with the gunfire ending almost as soon as it started and leaving the marines with no clear targets to fight back against.
"They are harassing us on a daily basis," said another marine, who likened the attacks to a kind of local propaganda campaign. "We know they're ineffective, but the people around here don't."
"We would welcome any firefight the terrorists want to engage in," he added.
Instead of one pitched battle, however, the life of the marines here is one of constant tension and sudden, brief attacks, as they try to regain control over one of Iraq's most dangerous cities.
The 1st battalion of the 6th regiment is just the latest marine unit to take on the harsh job of securing Ramadi's downtown -- a vast sea of drab low-rise pockmarked buildings, punctuated by the occasional minaret.
Earlier in the year, entire neighborhoods of the city had been effectively given up to the insurgents, who chose Ramadi as the place to declare their Islamic Caliphate back in October.
But now, thanks to outposts such as Firecracker and the 17th street station, the marines are back.
According to US military officials, the spike in casualties over the past few months in Al-Anbar province -- the scene of the lion's share of American war dead -- was because of this push back into the city.
"We used to have to fight to go to this station," recalled Captain Sean Dynan whose regular supply runs out to Alpha company keep these marines in food and equipment.
"It is still a bad part of the city. We take extra precautions when we go in, but it is in no way off limits."
The marines do foot patrols in the area, both day and night, moving in erratic zig zags across the trash-strewn streets and occasionally breaking into a short run across intersections.
For the most part, the marines have a pretty negative opinion of the marksmanship of Iraqi gunmen -- whether insurgent or soldier -- dubbing their fully automatic approach with their assault rifles "spray and pray".
But it is the insurgents' small but elite bands of snipers, many of whom, rumor has it, are from outside Iraq, that keep the marines shifting from foot to foot in an effort to reduce their vulnerability to these hidden shooters.
"Make it difficult to be a target, don't stay long on the road, and go to see people inside their houses," Lieutenant Jared Towles told his men before the patrol.
"I told them that not everybody's bad, even if it is sometimes hard to remember that because insurgents are part of the population, but a lot of families live in the area," added the 25-year-old officer.
The men prefer to make their patrols after dark, when their night vision goggles give them a tactical advantage and their only companions are the packs of feral dogs that roam the deserted streets of the city.
As difficult as it seems in a such a complicated battlefield, the marines said they go out of their way to avoid civilian casualties -- not always easy when the attacks are sudden and seemingly come from nowhere.
"When we're on patrol, people will come up to us and say 'I've had enough' and we tell them, 'it's you who can stop it, send your sons to the police,'" said Alpha company commander Captain Kyle Sloan.
"I ask my marines to be very careful at what you shoot at. We only shoot when we know we're gonna kill or wound an insurgent. People have seen that, and now children are playing football nearby," he said.
Other units are not always so careful. Last Tuesday, army soldiers in the northeast of the city fired tank rounds into a building from which insurgents were shooting at them and killed five Iraqi girls, including an infant.
Five minutes' drive from Firecracker is a defunct school for disabled children that has been turned into a station for the city's fledgling police force, which will one day have to take over security duties from the marines.
In a firefight not far from the station a few months ago, several civilians were wounded in the crossfire and taken by the marines to their base hospital -- producing a marked change in the local attitude towards them.
"We treated civilian casualties back in September, and after we started doing that they stopped firing at us for a month-and-a-half," said Dynan.
In recent weeks, though, the shooting has started once again.
12-08-06, 08:24 AM
Patrolling Fallujah on a 'typical day'
12/07/2006 @ 10:51 am
Filed by Bill Roggio (PMI)
Raw's Iraq correspondent rides along on a patrol of one of the two main arteries through the Fallujah region
The city of Fallujah and its surrounding environs have both a symbolic and strategic importance for the security of Iraq.
The region south of Fallujah, including the towns of Amaryiah and Ferris, is patrolled by the Marines of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion. The regiment also has three additional companies. I embedded with the "Gators," the Marines of Bravo Company, 2nd Assault Amphibious Battalion, commanded by Captain Eric Dominijanni.
The traditional mission of an Assault Amphibious Battalion is to land Marines on the beach, using their huge Amphibious Assault Vehicles (or AAVs), which hold up to 20 Marines and a crew of three. But here in Iraq, the Gators have been assigned to patrol Route Mobile, one of the two largest roads running east-west through Anbar province, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Today I patrolled Route Mobile with the Marines of 2nd Platoon, 3rd Section, which calls itself The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There are four tracks to a section, and the Amphibious Assault Vehicles of the 3rd Section, led by Staff Sergeant Joshua Meyers, are aptly named White Horse, Red Horse, Black Horse, and Pale Horse. I accompanied Red Horse, commanded by Sergeant Joseph Borgard.
This route can be dangerous. Insurgents drop roadside bombs out of cars, place them in craters, or dig holes and bury them, in hopes of killing Marines and destroying vehicles. Four AAVs have been disabled in the three months since Bravo Company has been in theater, and the company was hit three times over the past week. A Marine was killed during one of these strikes.
Most of the patrols are uneventful, however. Many of the roadside bombs are easily spotted and subsequently destroyed by an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team. Today's patrol also was uneventful, which is "typical," according to "Doc" Eric Hughes, the Navy Corpsman assigned to the section.
We patrolled the entire length of the Gators' section of the road, beginning in an area north of Habbaniyah and proceeding almost as far as Abu Ghraib.
The section stopped and searched a car containing four Iraqi men but found nothing. There were textbooks in the car and they appeared to be students.
We also ran across an ambulance on the side of the road with its windows blown out and tires shot. The Iraqi Highway Patrol was there before us and left after we arrived, as they wanted the Marines to tow it. The Iraqi police then showed up and towed the ambulance away.
Route Mobile had a heavy security presence. During the patrol, we saw two Iraqi Police patrols, a Highway Police patrol, an Iraqi Army patrol and two convoys of Marines. The Marines I was with said this was typical.
Despite this presence, black scars from bomb blasts were visible on the asphalt.
Many of the roadside bombs are what are called "pop and drops," indicating that the roadside bomb is armed, then hastily dropped from a vehicle. These often can be more dangerous to the insurgents than to their targets, as they can detonate prematurely.
"Some of these guys get killed planting those," I was told by Corporal Dave Guerra.
Late in the evening, we stopped to provide overwatch on a section of Route Mobile. This was the same area where the Marine from Bravo Company had been killed.
An Iraqi family came out and the Marines gave them MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) and some candy and snacks. We pulled away after a cool, dusty sunset and headed back to Camp Fallujah.
After the mission, the Marines discussed the effectiveness of the Iraqi Army and Police. They spoke highly of the Army. "Those guys are motivated, they will wave to you," said SSgt Meyer. This is no surprise, as the 1st Division is the oldest and most seasoned division in the Iraqi Army.
But both Sgt Borgard and SSgt Meyer were less kind to the police, whom they described as "corrupt" and "gangsters."