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Feature: Marines target smugglers

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Richard Tomkins
Camp Ripper, Iraq (UPI) Nov 13, 2007
As insurgent and terrorist violence in western Anbar province continues to fall, a small band of U.S. Marines at Al Asad Air Base are increasingly drawing their beads on bands of oil smugglers who nip across the border to Syria to sell purloined oil or who hawk refined fuel from Syria on the Iraqi black market.

They're called Aero-Scouts. And though their operations in the area known as AO-Denver may not be counter-insurgency warfare in the narrowest sense, they're an important element in the broader strategy to help bring security and stability.

First, smuggling of oil and refined fuel undercuts Iraq's central government. Second, it may also be helping fund insurgent and terrorist operations. A classified U.S. government report disclosed by The New York Times last year estimated insurgents raked in a minimum of $25 million annually as a result of the activity nationwide.

In western Anbar province, Maj. Bob Brodie from South Carolina is the man smugglers have to reckon with. Nearly every day he and a group of 40 Marines, together with a handful of Iraqi army personnel, scour the desert by helicopter and swoop down on encampments and suspect vehicles. It's a multitasked effort: part policing, part counter-insurgency, part reconnaissance.

"I've been doing it for about 10 months now, and we've interdicted oil pirates, found insurgent camps, weapons caches and an IED (improvised explosive devices) factory," he said. "These days, we're finding oil pirates more and more."

On Monday, Brodie's "package" consisted of four helicopters -- one of them a Cobra gunship -- a 30 Marine assault force, four Iraqi soldiers and an interpreter. Within minutes of being airborne and heading north from Al Asad, the first target was sited -- an encampment containing 13 men. No oil or weapons were found and the Marines withdrew. But 20 minutes later things changed. Two small flatbed trucks were spotted in a wadi with what seemed to be oil drums.

The helos circled, two dipped and then set down. Marines raced out the back, quickly set a security perimeter and then raced forward to surround the trucks, which had come to a stop.

"Be careful but very aggressive," Brodie had told his men the night before in a pre-mission briefing. "Be professional, but very aggressive. It's all about money (for those involved in smuggling). For the moment, they just put up their hands but it's inevitable that it's going to change."

In a different area of operation last month, Brodie had said, smugglers hauling a big rig opened fire on Marines with semiautomatic weapons.

The men stopped Monday were firmly taken aside, searched, papers checked, retinas scanned into a database for checking against wanted terrorists, and then questioned by the Marines and Iraqis as their vehicles were searched.

It was a good stop. Their cargo was 24 55-gallon drums of diesel fuel for which they had no documentation. The Iraqi troops tied plastic restraint bands around their wrists and put them on a helicopter for further questioning in the rear and possible detention.

In 15 minutes it was done. Brodie and his Marines were airborne again, the trucks left behind for later pickup. But the Marines relaxed only for a few minutes. Another target was sited -- two more flatbed trucks with drums. The result: four more detentions and more confiscated fuel.

And so it went for nearly four hours.

"It feels good," one Marine said. "It's not combat against insurgents, but you know you're doing something worthwhile. And there's a tangible result to what you're doing."

Brodie's missions are particularly suited for AO-Denver. The area of responsibility for the Marines is about 30,000 square miles, roughly the size of Southern Carolina, and sparsely populated. Its vast desert, some of which borders Syria and Jordan, is full of wadis in which vehicles can travel undetected from the ground.

A major town in the AO is Haditha, the hiding place of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaida-Iraq who was killed by U.S. aircraft in 2006.

An alignment with U.S.-led coalition forces by tribal sheiks has led to a sharp drop in terrorist and insurgent violence in recent months. Marine Col. Stacy Clardy, the commander of the 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team at Al Asad, told United Press International there's been a 75-percent reduction in violence in AO-Denver since January -- from an average of 95 attacks, including IED incidents, a week to about 24 weekly. Al-Qaida, however, is still using parts of western Anbar province as a transit point and remains a threat.

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