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thedrifter
05-18-08, 10:19 AM
MILITARY: Anbar insurgency still active, colonel says

By MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

CAMP RIPPER, IRAQ ---- Col. Patrick Malay sat in front of a large wall map Friday, describing the latest operations that his more than 4,000 Marines and sailors are carrying out in the Anbar province.

The troops from Camp Pendleton have been in Iraq since the first of the year, conducting missions against insurgent and al-Qaida fighters that still operate in the expansive province west of Baghdad.

Speaking at Camp Ripper, in the heart of the Marine Corps' area of responsibility, Malay said that, while the task has gotten easier in recent months as a result of the dominant Sunni population turning away from the insurgency, the work is far from done.

After a relatively quiet winter, the number of "TICS," or troops in contact with enemy fighters is on the upswing so far this spring, the stocky, plain-speaking colonel acknowledged.

"There's still some very clever, savvy, dangerous bastards out there," Malay said. "We've also got some nationalist insurgent cells that are dangerous."

Malay heads up Camp Pendleton's Regimental Combat Team 5, one of two base combat teams serving in Anbar this year.

Malay said that his forces, along with other coalition troops and the emerging Iraqi army, are using three methods to ferret out the insurgency ---- intelligence operations, "combat hunting" and plain, hard cash.

Even then, there are pockets of resistance in the western region along the Syrian border that won't ever change, he said, as a building sandstorm outside his compound tucked within the Al Asad air base threatened to shut down flight operations.

"We've got some guys out there that are hard core," Malay told one of his bosses, Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, the head of Marine Corps forces in the Middle East, who hopscotched across the region the last two weeks to meet with senior U.S. military leaders and visit his troops.

"These guys won't ever change," Helland said. "But as long as they're just sitting out there in the desert, that's OK. If it comes time to fix them in place, they're easy to kill."

Malay's troops are responsible for maintaining security over a wide swath of western Iraq, as well as working with the Iraqi army to make it ready to assume primary responsibility for protecting its citizens.

The scheduled hand-off of primary security responsibility is set to take place in a few weeks, after which Marine Corps commanders say their goal is to pull their forces back into an "overwatch role" that can provide rapid assistance if called upon.

Through his intelligence assets, Malay said the military has been able to track down and arrest suspects in roadside bombings. Experienced investigators comb the scene of such of such bombings, picking up any fingerprints or physical clues they can.

"It's proving to be one of the best weapon systems we've got," the colonel said.

Marines using "combat hunter" skills now being taught to frontline units before they deploy from Camp Pendleton also is proving a success, Malay said. The program teaches Marines clues to look for when observing the population, and helps the troops stay calm and focused.

And then comes cash, money spent in some cases to simply buy favor and doled out in other instances to help create jobs.

Malay has directed the spending of more than $12 million this year through a commander's discretionary fund. The money is in addition to regularly approved civil affairs spending in the province.

"If you take the AK-47 and the IED out of a guy's hand and give him a good job, he will then reject someone trying to offer him a few hundred dollars to plant a bomb," Malay said.

In another case, the Marine Corps spent $150,000 on a luxurious sport utility vehicle for an elderly deaf and toothless Iraqi sheik. Malay stressed the man's age and apparent poor health was in no way indicative of his inner strength.

Shortly thereafter, the sheik, who Malay said survived beatings and forced tooth extractions during 12 years of confinement in an Iranian prison, began turning in insurgents.

Malay also noted the sheik has several wives, including one in her 20s who recently gave birth.

Despite the best efforts of commanders such as Malay and other U.S. and Iraqi military and police forces at work in Anbar, troops' deaths, along with combat engagements, have spiked in recent weeks.

In late April, four Camp Pendleton Marines died in a massive roadside bombing, and traveling "outside the wire" of bases remains dangerous in many places.

Conversely, in the times that Malay and his forces have been at work, 15 insurgents have been killed and 405 suspected insurgents detained for questioning, according to statistics provided by a combat team public affairs officer, Lt. Lawton King.

The evening before the briefing from Malay, an Iraqi brigadier general at the nearby home of the 7th Iraqi Army Division said insurgents crossing over the border with Syria remain the biggest problem in Unbar.

"We believe the terrorists continue to go in and out of Syria," said the general, whose name was not disclosed.

The Iraqi general met with Helland for about 20 minutes, insisting that the Marine sit at his desk inside his headquarters' office.

As the Arabic version of MTV played softly on his television, the mustachioed Iraqi general, speaking through an interpreter, said the several thousand soldiers he has are doing good work, but are not sufficient to occupy a province larger than the state of South Carolina.

"We are also expecting more terror cells to come down from the city of Mosul," the general said. "They pretend they are shepherds."

As the Marine Corps helps raise up the fledgling Iraqi army, the Iraqi general told Helland that his officers have learned a great deal about how to treat and motivate their troops.

One simple, yet effective, change has been in mess hall habits. In the Marine Corps, there is no distinction between officers and enlisted men and women in a chow hall. Everyone is simply a Marine getting fed, with officers seated next to corporals and privates. There's no saluting, and no other deference to rank.

It didn't used to be that way in the Iraqi army, but now is.

"Hopefully, the day will come when we will be at the level of the Marines in all areas," said the Iraqi officer, who has four wives.

The Marine who works day to day with the general and is embedded with the Iraqi army, Col. John Broadmeadow, said he believes the Iraqis are ready for the upcoming security hand-over set to take place in mid-June.

"They recognize it is their job to stop the violence and turn away the remaining pockets of the insurgency and al-Qaida," Broadmeadow said.

Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (760) 740-3529 or mlwalker@nctimes.com.

Ellie