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thedrifter
10-08-07, 10:09 AM
Iraq insurgency: Fighting on the beaches
By Damien McElroy in Habaniya, Anbar Province
Last Updated: 3:01am BST 08/10/2007


Damien McElroy spent a week in the heart of the insurgency in Anbar province in Iraq. In the first of seven exclusive reports he describes the daily battle to drive out al-Qa'eda.

US Marines in Iraq's Anbar province have taken the battle against al-Qa'eda to the unlikely setting of a beachside resort in the desert.

Daily patrols to prevent extremists gaining control of a dilapidated, formerly opulent tourist hotel are assigned to C Battery, 1 Battalion, 11 Marines.

At stake is the security of coalition airbases across the horizon of Lake Habaniya, as well as regular helicopter patrols around the rim.

With 160 families living in its villas, the challenge facing C Battery is to ensure that Islamic radicals don't establish a sympathetic base in the local population.

"We're not fighting people who are coming out to attack us in the open here," said Sergeant Brian Higdon, a convoy commander.

"Their aim is to control the people, so have to know the population as well as possible. We find out who's, who and network our way in, so that the enemy cannot."

In an otherwise sparsely populated zone between Fallujah and Ramadi, Habaniya Tourist Village is a strategic prize in a province where US forces claim to have turned the tide against Muslim extremists. The resort was a playground for the Baghdad elite.

Saddam Hussein's depraved eldest son, Udai kept a now bombed and abandoned villa next door.

The main building in the resort, which is modelled on a Club 18:30 design and built by a French contractor, is an empty shell.

Swimming pools stand empty, tennis courts abandoned and an amusement park is rusting silently.

Only a brochure gives the full flavour of its heyday, when it boasted a marina, cocktail bar and disco tent.

"Another day in paradise," said one Marine.

It is a common saying among US servicemen in Iraq but in the surroundings the irony isn't faked.

General Manager Amir Hamid has run the resort since 1998 but has not had paying guests since the war to depose Saddam.

No longer a hotel executive, he has become a village chief.

By taking in displaced families from as far away as Baghdad, while barring extremists, Hamid is one many Anbari figures who are allied with the US in a battle drive out al-Qa'eda.

With the co-operation of key figures in the province, Anbar - last year judged lost by US intelligence - is now the focus of US hopes for success in Iraq.

The families housed in the resort's 535 villas are all known to Hamid through tribal or family connections.

His wife is a cousin of Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha, the influential leader of the Anbar Awakening movement who was killed last week after meeting President George W Bush.

"What we are doing is like Sheikh Sattar," he said.

"He prevented insurgents from his area and then sheikh by sheikh, step by step, he got other areas to rise up against al Qa'eda too. What choice did he have? His father, three brothers, four cousins were all killed. What choice do we all have?"

As Sergeant Higdon supervising distribution of school bags for the children, Hamid said Anbar's citizens feared those fighting in their name more than the Americans.

"What does Osama bin Laden want from Iraq," he asked.

"He is already a very rich man, so he wants control over us. The problem here is not Iraqis but Jordanians, Egyptians and Tunisians who terrorise us as they fight America. America's Anbar allies are not unalloyed supporters of the occupation, he said, but they recognise it needs help to beat al-Qa'eda.

"America came to Iraq and destroyed the ministries," he said. "It turned the people into revolutionaries and looters and let al-Qa'eda in.

"We ask why can't America catch bin Laden," he said.

"It has planes that see in caves but it can't catch him. So we conclude must all work together to put al-Qa'eda out of Iraq."

The residents of the village appear grateful for American assistance to rebuild lives shattered in Iraq's civil war.

Yassir Abdullah, 34, fled nearby Ramadi last year in the middle of an uprising again US forces.

He said: "The fighting drove us out and now we can't go back. My house was rented. It is gone."

The majority are victims of sectarian cleansing in Baghdad.

Fatimah Mahmoud fled the Bab al Sour district of the capital when a barrage of intimidatory gunfire from a Shia militia triggered a fatal heart attack in her 12 year old daughter.

"At least it is peaceful here," she said.

"We have no money but we have safety that is enough after all we have suffered."

The daily visits by the Marines are vital to America's efforts to prevail over Islamic radicals in Iraq, according to Captain Edward Butler, the battery commander.

"I'm asking my 18- year old guys to build relationships in a situation where everything we say and do can have a dramatic personal effect. This is the way we have to fight this war. Getting with the Iraqis and understanding how they work."

The most valuable legacy of the deposed regime is a 24-hour electricity supply and a water treatment plant, facilities unrivalled in Iraq.

The Marines have provided emergency funding for a primary school and equipment.

The provincial government sends food parcels to the inhabitants.

Deena, a five year old girl who will start school at the end of the month, is the pay-off for Sgt Higdon.

She wears a T-shirt with a picture of a namesake, a Turkish singer.

"She is a symbol of how safe we are making the area from al-Qa'eda," he said.

"That she is walking around feeling comfortable in who she is and with us is great. That's she's going to school is the best."

To view pix's
www.telegraph.co.uk/core/Content/displayPrintable.jhtml;jsessionid=B20NQADUWNVQPQFI QMFCFF4AVCBQYIV0?xml=/news/2007/10/08/wanbar108.xml&site=5&page=0

Ellie