April 10, 2006
Outgunned insurgents rely on ingenuity

By Todd Pitman
Associated Press

RAMADI, Iraq — On an eerie, battle-scarred street in this blown-out urban war zone, a mannequin with painted black hair stares silently at Marines hunkered down in sandbagged observation posts atop buildings a few blocks away.

It’s the latest insurgent ruse in an evolving war pitting the world’s most powerful military against guerrilla fighters using their most effective weapon: ingenuity.

Insurgents in Ramadi recently have flown kites over U.S. troops to align mortar-fire, released pigeons to give away U.S. troop movements and staged attacks at fake funeral processions complete with rocket-stuffed coffins, U.S. forces deployed here say.

“They’re crafty, I’ll give ’em that,” said Marine Cpl. John Strobridge, 20, of Orlando, Fla., as his Humvee passed the mannequin along one of the most bomb-infested roads in town, a street Americans call Route Michigan.

“Gun it! Gun it!” he screamed to his driver as the vehicle crossed a frequently targeted intersection.

The mannequin first popped up a few weeks ago in the courtyard of a secondary school near a collapsed building. The simple figure appears to be made of wood, with a white shirt and blue plants painted on. Two white arms hang down, carrying a briefcase.

“We kind of laugh at it. We don’t know why they do it,” Strobridge said. “But I think the idea is, we get used to looking at the mannequin, and then one day there’s a real person standing there” — with an AK-47 or a rocket launcher.

Marines said there’s no point stopping to take it down. The road is too dangerous, and such bizarre sites often are booby-trapped. At the bottom of a light pole beside another mannequin elsewhere in the city, the sleeve of an American MRE military ration package was found concealing a bomb.

A Marine intelligence officer, who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said insurgents had placed other booby-trapped mannequins on roadsides, hoping U.S. forces would believe they were corpses and stop to check on them. He said they had used the same trick with real corpses.

In recent weeks, Marines found a human leg in the road with a pressure-switch bomb set to go off when it was picked up.

“The enemy will always try different things to try get us to bite on. They’re very smart,” Capt. Andrew Del Gaudio, 30, commander of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, said during an interview at Government Center, a sandbagged fortress topped with camouflage netting that serves as headquarters to the provincial government.

“They sit there and watch us, observe us for weeks at a time, see how we operate and how we react to things,” said Del Gaudio, of Mt. Laurel, N.J. “Then they try to place obstacles in our path.”

The U.S. military conducts a huge array of counterinsurgency tactics, both offensive and defensive, but most of them are classified.

Marines stationed at Government Center, which came under a two-hour sustained attack Saturday by dozens of gunmen, say insurgents regularly creep through the abandoned, shot-up buildings surrounding it, storing ammunition in empty houses and firing rockets, mortars and automatic weapons.

Sometimes insurgents will shine flashlights at U.S. guard posts, trying to blind Marines’ night-vision goggles. Guerrillas have been seen crawling slowly on their bellies, trying to lay bombs. One was spotted trying to move unseen beside a cow by a device that produces an image from body heat.

Insurgent snipers — hiding in tall buildings — are a constant threat. One was spotted — and subsequently fired upon — observing a U.S. position with binoculars through a hole left in a wall where a single brick had been removed from under a window.

The most dangerous threat, however, remains roadside bombs — hidden in trash, potholes, piles of dirt or dead animal carcasses.

U.S. forces regularly sweep the roads for bombs, and insurgents sometimes try to remove them, then replace them. Another tactic: dropping a harmless piece of trash by the roadside one day, planting explosives in it the next, then arming it later and triggering it from blocks away with a cordless telephone.

Marine and Army officials said guerrilla fighters also fly kites that signal to other fighters where U.S. soldiers are, to help them direct their fire, and Del Gaudio said insurgents have released flocks of pigeons into the air as an American or Iraqi patrol goes by so that other fighters know where U.S. forces are.

Carlos Goetz, 29, of Miami, said insurgents also have used mosque loudspeakers to signal impending attacks.

“They’ll call for blood drives in the hospital or say there’s gonna be a funeral procession, and seven out of 10 times that’s code for an attack,” Goetz said.

That apparently bore true one day last week, when an assault on Government Center — two mortars, two RPG rounds and some small arms fire — was preceded by a funeral announcement broadcast from minarets.

Goetz said insurgents in Ramadi have held full-blown funeral processions carrying a coffin through the streets. They set the coffin down behind a wall, whipped out assault rifles and rocket-launchers and began attacking U.S. positions, Goetz said.

“Firepower-wise they’re no match for us, but that’s the nature and beauty of an insurgency — they capitalize on their strengths to hit our weaknesses,” Del Gaudio said.

Insurgents in Ramadi have destroyed the city’s cell phone towers and land lines, cutting off a key avenue for locals to tip off U.S. and Iraqi forces of guerrilla activities. People sympathetic to U.S. or Iraqi troops are especially targeted by insurgents, who have issued warnings with black spray paint on villa walls calling for collaborators to be killed.

Del Gaudio said this week he’d come under fire by a dozen insurgents who were holding children and firing at U.S. forces — knowing Marines would not return fire. Goetz said a 12- or 13-year-old had been spotted Saturday planting a roadside bomb.

“They fight us hard, they are a determined enemy,” Del Gaudio said. “But there is no morality there. They hide among the population, among families, women and children. That’s how they fight. That’s how they do what they do.”