Thursday, November 16, 2006

Long Ago and Far Away

“By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility.”

Tim O'Brien, "The Things They Carried"

Saturday, November 11, 2006

"Wild, Wild West"

(c) Roger Leo
A convoy travels from al-Asad to Haditha Dam through desert in Anbar Province.

ANBAR (MAY 2006) – A visit in May to Iraq’s Anbar Province, to the area assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, 3rd Marine Division – “America’s Battalion” – found very different conditions than encountered on trips to Baghdad in September of 2004 and February of 2005.
Conditions also were very different from those found on a visit to 3-3 Marines in Afghanistan a year ago.
Anbar Province, called “the wild, wild west” by the U.S. commander on the ground there, is enormous, remote, dangerous and seemingly ignored to a degree by the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Daily foot and motor patrols take Marines of Kilo Co., 3-3, out of their firm base – a fortified compound in the middle of Haqliniyah – into city streets and surrounding villages.
Each foray brings danger of attack, most dangerously from roadside bombs which so far have accounted for all but two of 3-3 Marines 12 deaths since arriving in Iraq in February.
Pitched battles always end in favor of American troops, but they are few and far between in most parts of Anbar, where the remotely detonated bombs are a daily occurrence, and take a toll on men and morale.
One facet of this war is the repeated deployment of the same troops, sometimes to Iraq, sometimes between Iraq and Afghanistan, with some time in the United States between deployments to train and refit.
Many of the Marines now in “the Triad” – an area of Iraq along the Euphrates River northwest of Baghdad – with 3-3 also were in Afghanistan last year. They were deployed there for seven months, returned to their base in Hawaii in June 2005, then deployed to Iraq in February.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Dangerous Duty

(c) Roger Leo
Lt. Col. Norman L. Cooling

ANBAR (MAY 2006) – Lt. Col. Norman L. Cooling, 41, commander of 3-3 Marines, said, “In Afghanistan we weren’t particularly safe anywhere, but we knew we would be contested if we went certain places. We planned for that.
“Here these areas are everywhere. Simultaneously an urban patrol can be hit with small arms fire or IEDs or both and at one of our firm bases we can be taking indirect fire – mortars or rockets.
“High-intensity combat? No. But we’re most often fighting at a time and place of their choosing,” Lt. Col. Cooling said.
“The history of this area is problematic. All Anbar is a Sunni area of Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s government was their government. Many did not like him and many suffered, but the great fear sometimes is to be dominated by one of the other groups – Shia, Kurd, etc. in the government.
“In part this stems from being deathly afraid of Iran, which is Shia,” he said.
“There’s a real debate at home about whether we should have invaded Iraq three years ago. That’s counterproductive. The debate should be about what we do here now,” Lt. Col. Cooling said.
“Americans should be concerned about this area of Iraq providing al Qaeda the kind of training ground that led to 9-11, and part of Iraq breaking off and allying with the Shia theocracy in Iran.
“I really believe we should be here. I’m asking these Marines to potentially pay for these beliefs with their lives and I’m the one who has to call their Moms if something happens to them,” he said.
In Afghanistan, 3-3 Marines lost two men in one of 22 firefights during the unit’s deployment there. So far in Iraq, 12 men have been killed – nine by bombs, one by sniper fire, and two in non-battle incidents.
Kilo Co. – one of four companies that make up 3-3 – is in Haqliniyah, a city about 15 kilometers south of Haditha Dam, a flood control dam built by Czech engineers on the Euphrates in 1981. Marines conduct daily foot and mounted patrols in the city and environs, and each day are hit by IEDs.
Rarely, the Marines come under direct enemy fire, which they say they greatly prefer to the gnawing impact of bombs detonated remotely by faceless enemies.
In one of these instances, a foot patrol led by Sgt. Gayle L. Anders, 23, of New Braunsfels, Texas, spotted men carrying 155mm shells and Ak47s into a derelict building that had once been a hotel on the southern edge of Haqliniyah. As the patrol moved in, the Marines started taking small arms fire from several points in the building. They returned fire, set up a cordon around the building, and called for fire support. As the day progressed, more Marines from Kilo Co. arrived and began firing into the building. Attack helicopters and fixed-wing planes arrived and dropped an array of weapons onto the building. The south wing was leveled. One bomb went astray when it failed to acquire the airborne laser designator and hit a building – about 100 yards north of the former hotel – in which 13 Marines and eight Iraqis were sheltering.

Lucky Marine

(c) Roger Leo
Lt. John C. Burke, commander of 3rd Platoon, Kilo Co., 3-3 Marines, has a shamrock pasted inside his kevlar.

HAQLINIYAH (MAY 2006) – Lt. John C. Burke, 25, born in Foxboro, living in Boston, commander of the 3rd Platoon, Kilo Co., 3-3 Marines, was in the house when the bomb hit.
Looking at a video shot from a small digital camera, Burke described the blast: “This is the rooftop we’re on. See all the shell casings? Then ‘Blam,’ blackness. There were 13 Marines there. Myself and three others were on the roof, six were inside and three on the outside, and at least eight Iraqis.
“It was three sensations all at once: I heard the noise, felt the overpressure , saw basically darkness.
“One child has a laceration above the right eye, turned out it was nothing a couple of band-aids couldn’t fix, but we called for a Priority 1 medevac.
“I didn’t know if everyone was all right. It took about 30 seconds to figure it out then another few seconds to get on the radio.
“It was an accident. Noone was seriously hurt. The Marines didn’t let the bomb make them lose focus on the mission. It was a good learning experience,” Lt. Burke said.
That ended the day’s aerial bombardment. Next day, it resumed and over the course of the following week the derelict building was leveled.
Maj. James F. Kendall, 37, of Nashua, N.H., fire support coordinator, said that between May 11, when Sgt. Anders’ patrol was attacked, and May 18, when the former hotel was leveled, at least 16 aerial weapons were dropped.
These included seven 500-pound bombs, five hellfire missiles, two TOW missiles and two 2,000-pound bombs, some guided by laser beams, others by programmed coordinates, others through thin wires.
“We were able to come up with a weaponry solution to drop the building without collateral damage and without endangering Marines,” Maj. Kendall said.
“The hotel has been a problem for a long time. It was a known insurgent location, and having bad guys in the building was a good opportunity for us. PsyOps (psychological operations) did make surrender appeals, but they were ignored. Battalion urged the mayor to talk with the insurgents, to surrender. He couldn’t go near the place, it was rigged to blow up,” Maj. Kendall said.

Regimental Combat Team 7

(c) Roger Leo
Col. W. Blake Crowe, commander of Regimental Combat Team 7, at al-Asad in Anbar Province.

ANBAR (MAY 2006) – Col. W. Blake Crowe, 48, of Alexandria, Va., is commander of Regimental Combat Team 7, which operates throughout Anbar Province, a violent region of Iraq.
RCT7 comprises 5,000 men in five units: two Marine infantry battalions, one Marine light armored recon battalion, an armored cavalry unit out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska, and TF 136 out of Germany.
It covers an area of 33,000 square miles.
Like Lt. Col. Norman L. Cooling, commander of 3-3 Marines, Col. Crowe emphasized the importance of training Iraqi security forces – soldiers and policemen – to take over for U.S. and other Coalition forces.
“It’s a challenge,” Col. Crowe said. “We have to be in the cities, maintain a persistent presence, provide security. And security is improving. People are talking to us. If you told me two months ago that people would talk to us, I would have laughed at you. Now they’re coming forward.”
IEDs remain the most effective weapon against U.S. and Coalition forces, but also in spreading fear among Iraqis, Col. Crowe said.
“We meet with the local mayors, the local sheikhs, and they say their people are being hurt by IEDs as well. If the enemy had aircraft, they would drop those bombs on us. They don’t, so they use IEDs. If we stop the IEDs, we can open bridges and bring more wealth into their area.
“It’s a campaign of fear, murder, intimidation. We counteract that by showing people we’re not fly-by-night,” Col. Crowe said.
But the United States can’t hope to do it alone, he said.
“The Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police have to stand up. The Iraqi Army is on the way. The Iraqi Police have to be trained to more of a paramilitary standard than police anywhere else. Once police start taking root, that’s the No. 1 threat to the insurgency.
“An Iraqi policeman from this area, he can look at someone and say, ‘He’s a Syrian, look at his feet –nice manicured feet. He’s not a farmer, look at his hands.’ They pick up on accents and dialects – and we just don’t have that ability,” Col. Crowe said.
His hopes for the future – like the hopes of most American commanders in the region – are for Iraqi security forces to take over most operations.
“Every town in the Euphrates River Valley is going to have an Iraqi presence supported by American forces. We provide that windbreak because we have heavy armored vehicles and humvees.
“As Iraqis pick up more of the burden, the U.S. becomes a QRF – quick reaction force – for emergencies,” he said.
“But if we’re willing to continue to do what we’re doing now, they’re willing to let us. We have to start weaning ourselves off and letting the Iraqi forces take more responsibility,” he said.
“When we do downsize, there will still be advisers, and a few enduring bases to provide fire support to the Iraqi Army to defeat this insurgency,” he said.
One common concern among U.S. commanders is that political pressure in the United States will force troop reductions too soon for a solid transition.
“While looking at bringing forces home,” one commander said, “you have to look at areas that don’t have enough. I didn’t come here to draw and my Marines didn’t come here to lose. We’re at a tipping point here. Some strategic decisions will be made here this summer, bring some troops home, and not send over some that are scheduled to come. Why not shift those troops to areas that need them?”

"Crisis of Attrition"

(c) Roger Leo
Iraqi soldier on patrol in Haqliniyah.

ANBAR (MAY 2006) – While the wisdom or necessity of the invasion of Iraq four years ago remains an open topic, the attention of Americans, particularly those on the ground in the Middle East, increasingly focuses on how to extricate U.S. forces from a persistently dangerous and seemingly open-ended conflict.
The consensus among commanders is that stronger Iraqi security forces are the best – perhaps the only – way for U.S. forces to downsize and, ultimately, leave.
But enormous problems – of recruitment, pay, supplies and personal safety – are hampering efforts to build up the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police.
Officers assigned to train Iraqis in al Anbar Province say the problems have reached critical proportions.
“We’re in a crisis of attrition,” said Lt. Col. Jeffrey J. Kenney, 48, of Hartford, Conn.
Lt. Col. Kenney has been a Marine 31 years, the first 12 rising to the rank of gunnery sergeant, the rest as an officer.
He is the Military Transition Team chief for the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Brigade, 7th Infantry Division .
“We’re supposed to have 2,400 Iraqi soldiers, we have 1,600. There’s no banking system, so when they are paid, they have to take the money home. Normally they work 21 days on and a week off. Since we’re in al Anbar, which is insurgent country, it takes days to go home through some of the most dangerous places on earth.”
More than $1 million a month is involved in supporting the 2nd Brigade, 7th Infantry Division – including $670,000 in pay and $250,000 for food, water and fuel – but that money has not been forthcoming since February.
Besides no pay and little or no supplies of food and water, Iraqi soldiers serve with no fixed term of enlistment, Lt. Col. Kenney said, which means they can walk off the job at any time.
He listed other problems that included inadequate equipment and materiel; a literacy requirement that prevents otherwise willing recruits from enlisting; and murder and intimidation campaigns that scare people away.
“If those problems could be fixed, we could retain Iraqi troops and start winning the war,” Lt. Col. Kenney said.
“If we could solve the retention problems, we could step back and be support, and Iraqis could take over. And we need that. Americans don’t have enough people to control the battle space. We need the Iraqis and we have to stop the hemorrhaging.
“The only thing the insurgents have to offer is threats, is terror, and that’s powerful. Community police work is resolving disputes – I don’t’ see a lot of that, what we have is murder and intimidation and IEDs.
“The only way we’re going to win the people is to protect them – we have to have enough people, we need cops to protect the people, and need the Iraqi Army to protect the cops.
“People are sick of seeing foreigners driving around their streets with guns, making people pull over and stop.
“To really win the war, Iraqi forces have to do it,” he said.
“If the Iraqi Army was half again as numerous as we are now, we’d see two years of strife and then things would settle down.
“Whoever sticks it out wins, and they count on us quitting. Doing it, sticking with it and not giving up is the key,” Lt. Col. Kenney said.
“We need more Iraqi guys, and that means we have to fix the problems with retention. Otherwise it’s like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom,” he said.

Iraqi Police

(c) Roger Leo
Col. Shaban al-Ubaidi, police chief of Baghdadi, with photos of recruits killed in an ambush while on the way to join his force.

ANBAR (MAY 2006) – Maj. Lowell F. Rector, 42, of Columbus, Ohio is the Police Transition Team chief working with Iraqi Police in Anbar.
Maj. Rector has been a police officer for 12 years, and in civilian life serves as a sergeant on the Columbus Police Department.
“We’re trying to hire and stand up from scratch 4,550 Iraqi police officers, to work in six districts out of 28 police stations, mostly in metropolitan areas along the Euphrates River Valley.
“The IPs out here are trying to provide security and are not getting paid a dime because the Ministry of the Interior is not freeing up the money. Bureaucracy’s in the way of paying them the money. They have been working since November without pay – working with Coalition forces, with the Iraqi Army, cooperating with sheikhs and local councils.”
Maj. Rector cited Col. Shaban al-Ubadi, an Iraqi asked by the city of Baghdadi – a small Iraqi city about 100 miles northwest of the capital – to serve as police chief.
The son of a Sheikh, Col. Shaban accepted.
Maj. Rector described him as charismatic and fearless, able to attract and retain a small police force in Baghdadi. (Another U.S. commander cautioned that Col. Shaban’s unit had more similarity to an armed gang than what Americans think of as a police force.)
Col. Shaban was imprisoned and tortured twice under Saddam Hussein’s regime, was attacked by insurgents after Hussein’s fall, has seen two brothers killed and his mother shot, and his home destroyed.
On a visit to his compound outside Baghdadi, Col. Shaban displayed gruesome pictures of the mangled bodies of 15 police recruits ambushed and killed while en route from Baghdad to join his force.
“He just wants the insurgents to go away, and when they’re gone, he’ll quit,” Maj. Rector said.
Two months after this interview, Maj. Rector outlined significant changes in the situation in Anbar Province.
"The Provincial Chief, Brig. Gen. Sha’aban (not Col. Shaban), was arrested for suspected embezzlement of pay," he said in July.
"The Baghdadi Police and the remainder of the police in the Western Euphrates River Valley have been paid to date ... But the problem is still not fixed," he said.
At its heart, he said, is a long tradition in the region of the powerful controlling others through monetary leverage, guided by self-interest rather than service to country.

Baghdad, Again

IRAQ (JUNE 2006) – In the wake of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death this month, conditions in Baghdad and across Iraq remain violent.
Col. Michael F. Beech, a Worcester native, commands the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4,300 soldiers conducting military and civil operations in central and southern Baghdad.
On average, five to seven attacks occur each day in 4th BCT’s area, and the death of al Zarqawi has not significantly changed that, Col. Beech said.
“I wouldn’t expect the death of Zarqawi to have an immediate effect on attack levels in a small particular area, but it’s certainly had a disruptive effect on the network at large in terms of ability to plan, coordinate and carry out attacks in the future,” he said.
One part of his sector, the al Dora district, which has a power plant, oil refinery and sewage treatment plant, is among the city’s most violent neighborhoods.
One of Saddam Hussein’s defense lawyers was taken from his home in Dora in June, and killed. His wife said the abductors wore Iraqi police uniforms, and carried identity cards from the Ministry of the Interior.
That’s disheartening in light of Col. Beech’s assessment that conditions in al Dora had been improving.
“People were being targeted there,” he said. “Sunni insurgents would target Shia, and Shia militia were targeting Sunnis. In the past couple weeks we have made some progress in the al Dora market. After the Samarra shrine bombing in February, it was on the verge of closing. In April, 50 percent of the stalls were empty. I walked through there yesterday,” Col. Beech said two weeks ago, “and that market is 100 percent better.
“There’s a perception that the security situation is improving in Dora,” he said.
Other American commanders and administration officials also say conditions in Baghdad are improving.
Despite these postulations, conditions seemed to have grown worse in terms of security and quality of life for Iraqis compared with two previous visits to Iraq.
On those trips, the Dora power plant had two of four burners operating, computer controls not functioning, and the furnaces using crude oil, diesel or propane depending on what was available, producing six to eight hours of electricity a day.
Since then, the plant has brought a third burner online, but electric output has dropped to three to six hours of power a day.
Col. Beech said that’s because the plant machinery has continued to deteriorate, foreign contractors are reluctant to work on it because of violence, and the power is being spread among more neighborhoods.
He said that one local response has been the appearance of local entrepreneurs who wire houses into small electric generators, and start them up when the power plant shuts down. Each house on the mini-grids gets an average of 3 amps of power.
The city is – to say the least – a huge change from the quiet Tatnuck neighborhood where Col. Beech grew up.
His family lived on Mower Street, and he went to West Tatnuck Elementary and Middle schools, Doherty Memorial High, and then Norwich University in Vermont, a military school, where he graduated with honors.
He and his wife, Kathleen Earley, met in high school. She grew up on Vassar Street off Newton Square, where her mother, Roseanne, still lives. Col. Beech’s parents – Jim and Peggy Beech, live in Centerville on Cape Cod. Col. and Mrs. Beech now live at Fort Hood, Texas.
The commander of 4th BCT used to deliver the Telegram & Gazette as a boy; his brother, David, worked on the newspaper’s loading dock.
He and his wife – then girlfriend – used to babysit for a child named Tim Murray, who grew up to become mayor of Worcester.
“Say ‘Hi’ to him for me,” Col. Beech said.
Col. Beech has deployed widely, including tours in Bosnia and Panama. This is his first deployment to Iraq.
“My brigade – the 4th Brigade Combat Team – is responsible for conducting counterinsurgency operations and training Iraqi security forces in central Baghdad and southern metropolitan Baghdad, including the International Zone and the Rasheed District,” Col. Beech said.
His forces are partnered with several Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police brigades, and also work with district councils in the Rasheed, Karadah and Karkh neighborhoods of Baghdad.
Counterinsurgency operations include collection of intelligence; reconnaissance to identify locations of cell members; cordon and searches and raids to find caches of insurgent materials such as bomb making equipment, weapons and mortars; arrest and capture of insurgents; training of Iraqi security forces and Iraqi police; and building essential services such as water and sewer projects, Col. Beech said.
“The focus of everything we’re doing in my area is protecting the local population from the insurgents, be they criminal elements or insurgents preying on certain aspects of the local population. Certain groups target Shia minorities, some target Sunni people, so a lot of what we do is simply protecting the population, much like you would think of neighborhood police, working with Iraqi police and local police,” he said.
Col. Beech said his soldiers have good morale and a strong sense of mission, evidenced by high reenlistment rates – 172 percent of target, or 222 compared with a goal of 129 – among initial term soldiers, those in their first enlistment.
Of the brigade’s 4,300 soldiers, 14 have been killed since deploying to Iraq in January.
“The death of Zarqawi was celebrated by a lot of Iraqis, and it brings a lot of relief to a lot of people because that particular individual and his associates have brought a lot of suffering to people of Iraq,” Col. Beech said.
“Also, the minister of defense and minister of interior positions were filled, the last two ministerial positions to be filled in the new government, so people hope government can be more sustaining of their security forces,” he said.
“A lot of folks are cautiously optimistic,” he said.
“With two ministers in position, they have an opportunity to take a leading role in providing security. Iraqi security forces are now responsible for controlling 60 percent of Baghdad. Even in areas where they’re not running their own security ops, I have Iraqi partner units conducting operations with me every day,” he said.
The 5th Iraqi Brigade that is partnered with 4th BCT has relatively few pay problems – 15 soldiers out of 2,200 had problems in one recent pay period, Col. Beech said.
The Iraqi Police units partnered with 4th BCT have more problems with getting pay, he said, and as the number of police increase, he expects pay problems also will rise.
“They’re trying to increase the number of Iraqi Police in Rasheed and in al-Dora, and pay is one of the things the new government is going to have to address. That’s capability at the ministerial level. I can certainly train a battalion to do its job every day, but government has to perform those activities we take for granted – pay, medical care, training and supply, the institutional pieces of our army,” Col. Beech said.
“Things in our army we take for granted – repair parts, fuel, replacing equipment when it’s battle lost – those types of sustainment functions, those are the kind of things that need to be fixed for Iraqi security forces to take the lead,” he said.
“They’re certainly going to have to focus their efforts on key areas of sustainment – pay, medical, repair and regeneration of equipment lost to combat, fuel and repair parts. If they can do those things, I think they’ll come along pretty well,” he said.
“At my level I don’t have interaction on the ministerial level, I see how it plays out on the ground. Certainly my Iraqi Army unit is further along than my Iraqi Police unit
“The 5th Iraqi Army Brigade, commanded by Gen. Mohammed, was formed well over a year ago, and reached full operational capability back in February, from a personnel, equipment and readiness perspective, capable of operating on their own and conducting operations independent of us. We still operate together to take advantage of our own particular strengths,” he said.
Col. Beech cited one operation in a Baghdad neighborhood where the U.S. forces were attacked by small arms fire.
“It was a densely settled neighborhood, with lots of homes. What we decided to do, I formed the outer cordon, provided counter-mortar, some aerial recon capability, and Gen. Mohammed conducted the inner portion, and went through the target homes. We were in and out of the target area in a couple of hours,” Col. Beech said.
“The thing that worries me the most is not the attacks on U.S. forces and not attacks on Iraqi security forces. The things I’m most concerned with is attacks by insurgent groups on unarmed civilians in the streets, such as market place bombs. Those are things that concern me the most, sectarian-based attacks where groups are trying to foment civil war between Shias and Sunnis. That’s the part that worries me the most,” he said.