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Iraqi soldiers, U.S. Marines capture 65 suspected insurgents; find 62 tons of enemy ammo, weapons

7 Mar 2006 | Cpl. Cpl. Adam C. Schnell

Iraqi Army soldiers and U.S. Marines captured 65 suspected insurgents and found 80 weapons caches during a counterinsurgency operation in this former insurgent safe haven last week.

The Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, with Iraqi soldiers by their side, spearheaded Operation Al Asad (“Lion”) - a five-day push by Regimental Combat Team 7 to eliminate any traces of anti-Iraqi forces here.

“We came here and disrupted the enemy planning and execution cycle,” said Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, a Meeker, Colo., native and the battalion’s commanding officer. “We have successfully taken away the enemy’s logistics and continue to keep him on his heels.”

“Lion” is the latest in a series of counterinsurgency operations Marines and Iraqi soldiers in western Al Anbar Province have conducted to continue efforts to stabilize the region.

Baghdadi and Jubbah are adjoining towns bordering the Euphrates River in western Al Anbar Province, about 130 miles west of Baghdad.

The Marines and Iraqi soldiers here have spent the past six-plus months providing security for Iraqis in Al Anbar Province. Arguably more important, they’ve conducted combined operations with and assisted in the training of an Iraqi military unit, which will eventually replace U.S. forces here.

In addition to finding weapons caches and capturing insurgents, this latest operation disrupted the planning and execution of future terrorism here and in surrounding areas; particularly, the “Triad” region of Hadithah, Haqlaniyah and Barwanah, where the battalion has put the majority of its focus in security and counterinsurgency operations.

“Lion” put these Marines, who are used to operating more than 30 miles to the north in the “Triad” region, into new territory.

“Us going into this area makes the insurgents aware that we will go to any length to keep them from operating,” said 2nd Lt. Charlie Loya Jr., a platoon commander for Company I. “By clearing this area, it is one less area the incoming unit has to worry about right away.”

In the five days of the operation, the battalion’s Company I unearthed some of the biggest weapons caches found in Al Anbar Province. They found 43 caches in a single day - a record for the unit.  The most significant cache contained foreign weapons, numerous mortar and artillery rounds, rockets, and thousands of pounds of explosive propellant, used typically for roadside bombs.

All together, the Marines, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi soldiers discovered more than 62 tons of material. Marine combat engineers used metal detectors to find the hidden caches, some of which were well-buried beneath the sandy riverbanks and swampy farmland.

“Finding all those caches makes you feel like you are out here for a reason,” said Lance Cpl. Cody A. Elgan, a Council Bluffs, Iowa, native with Company I - the company that found more than 80 percent of the caches.

“We didn’t think we would find that many caches, but in the end it made the operation worth while,” said the 20-year-old team leader.

Iraqi soldiers played a major role in capturing insurgents and finding weapons caches, said Loya, a Lamirada, Calif., native. They assisted the Marines with unearthing the munitions; searched houses and swept the riverbanks for caches. 

“With operations like this one, we will gain more experience and in time will be able to conduct operations on our own without the Marines,” said Iraqi Army Lt. Mohmoud Ali, an Iraqi platoon commander here, through a translator. “By being in this area we bring security to people who have no one to protect them against the insurgents operating here.”

When they arrived at locals’ homes, the Iraqi soldiers talked to the residents about Iraqi and U.S. military presence here.

“The people here feel safer when we are around,” said Ali. “But they still are afraid to help us because of what the insurgents might do if they found out.” 

The battalion has trained the Iraqi soldiers since arriving in Iraq last fall. Over that time the soldiers have become much more proficient – from basic soldiering skills, such as marksmanship, to patrolling and conducting counterinsurgency operations with the Marines.

“This group of soldiers is a lot better than others we have had and they busted their butts right alongside the Marines,” said Loya. “It is nice to have them around because they know the culture and how people think so we can complete the mission better.”

The soldiers will soon have some new mentors as the battalion is nearing their rotation back to the United States. Though they’ll continue to hunt insurgents and train Iraqi Security Forces until they leave the country, the Marines are beginning to envision days in sunny southern California.

“I’m just looking forward to going back to see my family, relaxing and maybe some golfing,” said Elgan.

The battalion’s redeployment to the United States is part of a regularly scheduled rotation of forces in Al Anbar Province. More than 25,000 Marine and sailors of the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based I Marine Expeditionary Force are replacing the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based II MEF.