November 29, 2004,
"We're starting to suffocate them, and they're panicking"
In an isolated region of the Iraqi backcountry, said to be "the worst place in the world," thousands of Coalition troops are systematically wresting control of weapons caches and staging areas from insurgent forces falling back from recent defeats in Fallujah and elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle.
The operation, code-named "Plymouth Rock" (because it was launched Thanksgiving week), began last Tuesday when Coalition forces struck enemy forces in the town of Jabella, some 50 miles south of Baghdad. The strike was followed by a series of precision raids conducted by a 5,000-man combined force of U.S. Marines, members of the famed British Black Watch regiment, and Iraqi soldiers aimed at cleaning out a region of southern Baghdad and northern Babil Province known as the Triangle of Death. The triangle its three points connecting at Fallujah, Baghdad, and then south to Najaf is located just below the Sunni Triangle where the Coalition has focused much of its efforts over the past several months.
If not the "worst place in the world," the Triangle of Death so-named because of its profusion of bombings, kidnappings, execution-style killings of civilians, and overall banditry is certainly one of the most dangerous in Iraq. For months, the region's isolated towns and unsecured highways have served as a permeable haven for Iraqi criminals and terrorists. Recently, the region has been a point of refuge for embattled guerilla forces escaping south from thrusting U.S. forces in Fallujah.
Operating in an environment that more closely resembles the American Wild West of the 19th century than the tightly packed urban centers of Samarra and Fallujah, has forced some units to re-tool their battle plan. That's not a problem for tactically flexible U.S. and British forces, and they are training Iraqi security forces to be equally adaptable.
"This is not a Fallujah-like mass assault, marked by determined resistance and heavy fighting," Capt. David Nevers, spokesman for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (24th MEU), tells NRO. "The environment here south of Baghdad is very different, requiring a different approach. Our operations are surgical rather than sweeping in nature, more precision than mass."
In the Triangle of Death, Coalition raids have been characterized by collecting and processing intelligence on a specific enemy stronghold, planning a raid, then attacking that stronghold with a modicum of surprise by units trained to fight both as shock-troops and room-clearing commandos. In nearly all cases, large numbers of insurgents have been killed or captured, weapons caches seized, and new intelligence gleaned which serves planners for the next raid on the next town.
It's not an easy task. An estimated 6,000 insurgents former members of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, followers of Abu Masub Al Zarqawi who slipped through the Fallujah net, as well as unemployed locals or those coerced into fighting the Americans are believed to be operating in the region.
Still, the success of Plymouth Rock has been overwhelming. And much of that success can be attributed to the Iraqi SWAT team (see here), a U.S. Marine-trained police-commando force that reportedly leaves postcard-size calling cards at raid sites that say, "Are You a Criminal or Terrorist? You Will Face Punishment."
Capt. Thomas "Tad" Douglas, commander of the Marine Force Reconnaissance platoon that has trained and led the Iraq SWAT team since July, points to a bond between his Marines and the Iraqi commandos that is as strong as any found in any elite unit in the world. With that combined force "we are taking advantage of the enemy while he's reeling from Fallujah to push the fight to them," Douglas told NRO on Thanksgiving Day. "We conducted a combined ground/air assault yesterday with my Force Recon guys and Hillah SWAT [the Iraqi SWAT team is also known as Al Hillah SWAT because most of the team members are from the town of Al Hillah], and it went off flawlessly, netting us 43 detainees."
Douglas, a key leader in the dramatic rescue of Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch in April 2003, added, "To my knowledge, this is one of the first successful joint Iraqi/American air assaults."
Col. Ron Johnson, commander of the 24th MEU, tells NRO that the operations have been seamless and effective. "We can tell by the reaction of the enemy," he says. "We can tell by the increase in their activity, for example the fever pitch at which they're laying IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. We're starting to suffocate them, and they're panicking. We have a large target list, and we're going to continue to stay after them."
On Thanksgiving Day, elements of the 24th MEU, the 1st battalion of Britain's Black Watch, and the Iraqi SWAT team attacked a number of targets near Yusufiyah, netting 81 guerrillas (55 bad guys for the Americans and Iraqis, 26 for the British).
"Iraqi security forces, Marines and British soldiers, with close air support provided by Marine aircraft, moved swiftly to their targets, rounding up the suspected insurgents," says Johnson. "At least a couple dozen were of intelligence value. We collected multiple weapons systems, including IED-making materials. The extent of the coordination between forces that have been working together only a short time was unparalleled."
Early Saturday, the Iraqi SWAT team and the 2nd Ministry of Interior Commando Battalion (also an Iraqi special operations team), supported by U.S. Marines, descended on an insurgent stronghold near Lutafiyah. The raiders captured nine suspects and gathered fresh intelligence that led to a second raid on two houses later in the day. Eight suspects were detained in the second raid.
"If the insurgents thought they were going to catch a break after their pummeling in Fallujah, they're going to be disappointed," says Nevers. "They're reeling and scrambling for new sanctuaries, and by staying in the attack, we and the Iraqi security forces south of Baghdad will deny them any reprieve."
He adds, "This fight requires patience and persistence, and we have it in abundance. Time is on our side, not the enemy's. With each passing day, the Iraqi security forces get stronger and the day the Iraqi people are in full control of their destiny draws nearer."
A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist and the author of four books, including the Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces.