Marines locked in Anbar standoff

Al-Qaida insurgency called well-financed, well-led and elusive

January 02, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

RAMADI, Iraq -- After three years of fighting that has killed 143 American troops in Anbar province, the U.S. military has been unable to quash a vicious insurgency that shows no sign of abating.

Senior U.S. commanders, grappling with Islamist fighters through the Euphrates River towns and the dusty, wind- swept expanse of this province west of Baghdad, describe the insurgents of al-Qaida in Iraq as well-financed, well-led and elusive.

In interviews at heavily bunkered American outposts in Ramadi, Fallujah, Haditha Dam and elsewhere, the officers described the fight as a frustrating uphill battle that will require a steady commitment over many years to win.

President Bush's struggle to find a strategy to halt Iraq's slide toward chaos and civil war is focused on the growing sectarian strife in Baghdad, where White House and Pentagon strategists say the war must be won.

But no matter the fate of Baghdad, the separate insurgency in Anbar will fester and grow as a dangerous al-Qaida sanctuary unless it is decisively defeated, U.S. commanders said.

Gen. James T. Conway, making his first tour of the region since he was named commandant of the Marine Corps in November, called the steadily rising violence against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, despite the presence of 20,000 Marines, "disheartening."

He said it is likely that the deployment of 2,000 Marines in the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, sent here as reinforcements in November, would be extended by 60 to 90 days in March because they are filling critical combat missions around Rutbah, a stronghold of the main insurgent group, al-Qaida in Iraq.

But Conway said in an interview that he believes the bombings, assassinations and sniper attacks are "at a high-water mark."

U.S. forces are using such creative tactics as building earthen dikes or berms around some urban areas to control access by insurgents. They are outfighting the insurgents in firefights. They are helping to train and advise new Iraqi army and police units - all factors that Conway said convinced him the situation was better than he had expected.

The day after Marines finished building the berm around several large towns near Haditha this fall, insurgent attacks dropped by half.

"I was really encouraged," said Conway, who led 60,000 troops of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in two combat tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.

Other officers stressed that while there is progress, it will be slow.

"The issue isn't whether we can hang on," said Brig. Gen. Robert G. Neller, operations chief for Multinational Force-West, the military command for Anbar province. "The issue is whether the American people are willing to accept a long-term commitment in Iraq."

In direct firefights with insurgents, the Marines and soldiers here always prevailed. But there's no straight line from winning battles to winning the war.

"If killing people would win this, we'd have won a long time ago," said Col. William Crowe, commander of Regimental Combat Team 7, the main combat force in Anbar, where about 1,400 insurgents have been killed since June.

Working the back alleys and neighborhoods where there is no constant U.S. presence, the Sunni insurgents are waging a campaign of murder and intimidation to demonstrate that neither the Iraqi government nor U.S. forces can protect people.

"Kill one, scare one thousand," said an intelligence officer. "Anyone cooperating with us becomes a target for AQI assassination."

In Haditha, several relatives of the police chief were killed and their heads impaled on stakes for public display. A woman detonated a vest bomb at the entrance to a local university. The provincial council has fled from the capital, Ramadi, to the relative safety of Baghdad.

In general terms, violence in Anbar has risen steadily over the past year, in a pattern that shows up on intelligence charts as a ramp rising "in a northeasterly direction," as Conway described it. In Ramadi, roadside bomb attacks have jumped from four a day in October to six per day in November, despite a concerted Marine crackdown.

This year, thanks to growing expertise in smuggling, extortion, bank holdups and black marketing, the insurgency became self-supporting, independent of any need for outside financing. Contractors working for U.S. forces often are told to pay kickbacks or be killed. By one estimate, the insurgents brought in $80 million this year.

Although there is a general perception among Sunnis here that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad doesn't give Anbar its full share, some money does come in from Baghdad. Much of it is stolen or diverted to the insurgents.

"The more we learn, the more we see how much money from the government in Baghdad gets siphoned off" to al-Qaida in Iraq, said Lt. Col. Jim Donnallen, a battalion commander.

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