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The Battle For Haditha

Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment conduct a foot patrol through the streets of Haditha located in the restive on al-Anbar province, 260 kms northwest of Baghdad. US and Iraqi forces increasingly carry out joint patrols in this dangerous province that generally accounts for the bulk of US casualties in Iraq. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Pamela Hess
UPI Pentagon Correspondent
Haditha, Iraq (UPI) Mar 05, 2007
More than a year and three battalions completing tours of duty there after it happened, U.S. Marines serving in the Iraqi city of Haditha still feel the psychological weight of the November 2005 alleged massacre when a squad of Marines shot and killed 24 Hadithans, shortly after one of their troops was killed by an improvised explosive device. Hadithans don't bring up the incident with the Americans much. It may be purely a political calculation, telling the occupiers only what they want to hear.

It may be low expectations of anyone in power, or a heightened tolerance of violence, or simply war weariness. It may be, as the Marines in Haditha believe, that the locals have moved on and welcome the security improvements wrought in the last three months.

From late 2004 to much of 2006, the town was firmly in the hands of insurgents and terrorists who had liquidated the local police department. The last year has seen major fighting as U.S. forces struggled to oust an entrenched insurgency.

"Right here in the soccer stadium they dragged in the police and shot them," said U.S. Lt. Col. Jim Donnellan, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. "A lot of police just went away. A lot of Shia that were living here at the time -- Haditha was a pretty well educated area -- a lot of them were executed in the soccer stadium. I hear figures that vary wildly."

The physical intimidation of locals is a familiar formula, but the insurgents in Haditha had tapped into a different source of power that Donnellan's men did not break the code on until last fall.

One of the factors working to U.S. advantage across rural Anbar province is the powerful tribal structures. If a sheik decides to fight the insurgency -- as they increasingly are -- he can command hundreds of men and thousands of families to cooperate.

Donnellan does not enjoy that advantage in Haditha, a metropolitan city with a teaching college, a hospital, and many retired government officials from Baghdad.

"Some people here ask you who their sheik is, they respond like it's a trite question. 'Yes I trace my lineage back to this tribe' but they certainly don't defer back to whatever the sheik says," he said.

The pressure point in Haditha is economic. Under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, sugar, rice and flour, benzene for cars and propane -- the essential ingredients for day to day living in Iraq -- were all centrally controlled.

"It's this whole partial socialism kind of thing that the insurgents fully understood. The terrorists figured it out pretty quickly and the coalition was the last," Donnellan said. "We did not realize how much sway a propane distribution guy has on a neighborhood. If the insurgents can corrupt that guy or intimidate that guy, there's a whole village that doesn't get the propane.

"So were talking to, like, city councils and they were showing up for meetings in nice robes, and we'd talk about electricity or what have you," he said.

Meanwhile, the former mayor of Haditha -- working with the other side -- was doling out electric power, government food and fuel in accordance with the wishes of insurgents. Villages and blocks that cooperated with them benefited. Those that didn't were cut off. And the shortages were blamed in many cases on American security measures.

"Now we can counter that quicker now that we know who's pulling strings," Donnellan said.

"It's the worst 'Sopranos' meets al-Qaida type of thing," Donnellan said. "Because the insurgents were from here, and they had this marriage of convenience with the terrorists, and you had a fairly well educated bunch of retired Iraqi army generals who understood military operations, for a long time in the Triad you had a pretty bad combination of factors."

Donnellan, like many American military officers here, has a remarkable empathy for the people who cooperate with the insurgents.

"You can't dime out the terrorists because they'll kill the government food guy, and he's the only one with a bongo truck and a permit to pull propane," he said.

And the Iraqi government's food distributor is unlikely to resist the pressure of insurgents on his own.

"If someone is threatening to kill you and you're still getting a pay check (even if you don't do your job), it's kind of a no-brainer," Donnellan said.

Haditha is a cross-roads into Iraq, connecting Syria and Jordan to Baghdad, Ramadi and Mosul and hence prime real estate for foreign fighters and insurgents looking to haul weapons, funding and people into key cites in Iraq's interior.

They capitalize on the extreme hospitality to strangers characteristic of Arab culture -- strangers in need of food or a place to sleep are rarely turned away. As they make their way through they pay people to plant road side bombs and they leave behind strategic caches of weapons that insurgent cells can draw on to resupply.

"I'm not saying its more kinetic or difficult than anywhere else in the (Area of Operations) but you had a lot of jerks coming through here," Donnellan said. Next: Why Haditha has to be a police state

Analysis: The battle for Haditha-2
U.S. Lt. Col. Jim Donnellan's 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment has lost at least 23 Marines in battle and to IEDs so far in the city of Haditha, most of them in September and October.

"We've had some tough losses. A lot of them. And they've come in the more remote areas that we didn't have the combat power to get to as often as we wanted, and when you go, they have the larger IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," Donnellan said.

Donnellan's battalion of about 800 men is responsible for an area about 23 miles long and 14 miles wide, considerably smaller than the original AO before a second Marine battalion took up battle position across the Euphrates River in Barwanah. "In real estate you dominate you see much more hasty emplacement of IEDS" which are consequently less sophisticated and easier to spot. "The places you don't get to as often, they have time to put in the big ones."

Haditha is now, by Donnellan's admission, a police state.

"That's what it is, that's what it needs to be," he said.

Haditha, like Barwanah and Haglaniyah -- the other two towns in the triad -- is surrounded by a dirt berm topped with concertina wire and guards. There are two tightly controlled entrances, and no cars are allowed to drive in the town proper.

The U.S. military built the berms in December and January, part of a "clear, hold and build" operation called "al Majid" to bring this critical area under coalition and Iraqi police control.

Unlike the clearing of Tallulah -- an extremely violent battle that engaged some 10,000 Marines and resulted in nearly 2,000 dead Iraqi fighters -- and Tal Afar, in which the town was emptied and every building searched -- the clearing in the Haditha Triad was carried out with the people still in their homes.

It is, according to a Donnellan and other Marine officers, a maturing of counter-insurgency tactics.

"For this phase of the war if we're still kicking in doors and going house to house and telling the entire city to get out things are pretty bleak," Donnellan siad. "There may be a couple of places that in the future still need that as we find an enclave or two."

The clearing served more as an advertisement that the U.S. Marines and the reconstituted Haditha police department -- comprised of a charismatic local chief and 200 officers, many of them Shi'ites from southern Iraq -- would now be exerting their will over the city, rather than the insurgents.

"We didn't anticipate finding a lot (of weapons) in their homes during the clear(ing) because they've all gotten smarter than that," he said.

The caches that were found -- and they were substantial -- were in wadis, palm groves and sheds where there was plausible deniability as to whom they belonged.

Successful campaigns to pacify cities in Iraq follow a general pattern: terrorists and insurgents have to be killed, captured, pushed out of town or pushed underground through a clearing operation. Then locals need to believe that U.S. and Iraqi government forces are capable of keeping the adversary at bay.

If their confidence grows, they share information that further roots out the adversary. Gradually markets open and normalcy takes hold. The adversary launches counterattacks, but if public confidence in coalition forces remain, the adversary can no longer maintain a foot hold. It is not peace by any stretch of an American imagination, but it is stability. That is the goal.

"Eighty, 90 percent of the time you win on the intangibles. It's a battle of wills. I tell all the Sunnis that will listen that all the time. It's just a big ugly game of pushball right now. We've got all our guys behind the ball. They're not gonna physically roll over the 200 plus Iraqi police we have or the Marines. It's gonna be the people who say, ' I just can't do it. It's certainly not in Marine language to ever use that term."

Progress in security is verifiable. In the first week after the 2/3 took over Haditha there were 22 attacks in the town. That's down to one or two attacks a week since the clearing operation.

Anecdotally, it appears that things are improving. Local residents line up early outside the battalion's civil affairs office to get permits to drive and do infrastructure work; one group of men carry a sign that says "Don't shoot, water men." They will be fixing a broken pipe on the American base downtown, something that would not have happened last fall. To cooperate with the occupation would have meant risking their lives.

On this day, a U.S. captain took a small group of Marines down to the souk to procure a hot lunch of lamb on a stick.

"We were there enjoying our kebabs in the exact place I lost my first Marine," said Echo Co. commander Capt. Matt Tracy. "It was phenomenal, laughing and joking with the shopkeepers who three months ago would have been terrified of being seen in the same location as us even three months ago. Victory, I'm telling ya! It's right there!"

"We're inside the tent," Donnellan cautioned. "That doesn't mean we can't blow it."

Source: United Press International

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