HAQLANIYAH, Iraq -- Arguably some of the fiercest violence by insurgents against coalition forces in the Al Anbar province occurs in Haqlaniyah, Iraq, a city nestled along the Euphrates River northwest of Baghdad.
Fighting the insurgents’ attacks, from hand-thrown grenades to improvised explosive devices, drive-by shootings and small-arms ambushes, are the Marines of the Hawaii-based Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
Shortly after many of these attacks against coalition forces, propaganda urging residents to commit further attacks are heard echoing through the streets of this city of 30,000 from loud speakers in mosques, according to Sgt. Mennen Suleiman, a squad leader with Kilo Company.
Suleiman, 26, does not need an interpreter to understand the messages broadcast from the mosques – he was born in Kirkut, Iraq, and lived under the suppression of Saddam Hussein’s regime until he was 12. He left with his family to escape living in fear of Saddam Hussein and his regime then moved to Kearney, Neb. He joined the Marine Corps eight years ago.
“Most of the time they preach from the mosques about how Marines are bringing down the purity of Islam,” said Suleiman, shortly after a two-hour patrol through Haqlaniyah’s winding streets, where temperatures are a scorching 110 degrees.
“The truth is we are here to help them establish a new government and train their newly-formed Army so they can in turn live more peaceful lives and not live under the oppression of an evil dictator,” Suleiman said.
Suleiman, and the rest of the Marines from Kilo Company, many of whom served in Afghanistan last year, have battled the insurgency with a fierceness that only highly-trained infantrymen can bring to the battlefield.
During a regular patrol earlier this month, several Marines observed a handful of insurgents armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, scurry into an abandoned hotel in the city – a hotel which once served as a vacation spot for Hussein before he was ousted from power in 2003.
The Marines decided to take action.
The plan was simple: the Marines would cordon off the hotel and then raid it to apprehend the insurgents, according to Gunnery Sgt. Jim Lanham, 36, the unit’s company gunnery sergeant. Before they cordoned the building off, they received small-arms fire from within the hotel.
The Marines held their ground and returned fire into the hotel’s shattered windows. Meanwhile, military aircraft partially destroyed the hotel with precision munitions.
The Marines suffered no casualties.
“This is what will happen when insurgents try to fight Kilo Company toe-to-toe,” said 1st Sgt. Vincent Santiago, 35, the company’s senior enlisted advisor.
Rounding up the bad guys
A little more than a week later, two Marines were wounded by an improvised explosive device. Following the attacks, Marines searched a house near the forward operating base and detained two insurgents in possession of anti-coalition forces propaganda, ammunition for a sniper rifle and illegal weapons.
Suleimann said he often reminds Haqlaniyah’s residents that they need to report insurgent activity and turn in those who are responsible for making and planting improvised explosive devices on roads traveled by coalition forces.
“I tell the locals that if they turn a blind eye to these attacks and they do not report them, they are condoning them,” said Suleiman.
Santiago said his Marines have been subject to more enemy attacks than any other unit within the battalion, which operates throughout the “Triad” – a cluster of towns in this region along the Euphrates which includes the cities of Haditha, Barwanah, and Haqlaniyah.
“We are mostly being attacked with improvised explosive devices and taking indirect fire from mortars,” said Santiago, a native of Merizo, Guam, and a 17-year Marine Corps veteran. “Most of the insurgents do not have the courage to stand and fight the Marines face-to-face because they know they will be overpowered and outgunned.”
Transition to Iraqi-led security on track
In the midst of the fighting and apprehension of insurgents, the Marines are still able to fine-tune the freshly trained Iraqi Army soldiers assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division who live, eat, and operate daily with the Marines here.
“They are teaching them the same skills that all new Marines are taught once they are assigned to an infantry company,” said Santiago.
Santiago cites a recent mission when Iraqi soldiers and Marines searched for insurgents on an island located in the Euphrates River.
The Iraqi soldiers used the tactical skills they learned from the Marines to cross a bridge to the island – a task which seems easy enough, but actually can prove deadly, as bridges often provide the only way to cross over the Euphrates River.
Two months ago, when Kilo Company arrived here, the soldiers were incapable of crossing such a danger area without assistance from the Marines. They simply lacked the training to do so.
But now, they’re making progress – steady progress, according to Santiago.
“The Iraqi soldiers still have a lot to learn, but the Marines are determined to teach them the skills they need to fight the insurgency and take over this area of responsibility,” he said.
One Iraqi soldier, “Ahmed,” (his name has been changed in this article for his protection), said the soldiers are eager to work with the Marines and they believe the Marines are just as eager to train and assist them. He also said the Iraqi soldiers treat the attacks against the Marines just like they would attacks against their own.
“We are here to learn the same skills the Marines have used to suppress the insurgents who threaten the lives of innocent Iraqi people and plan attacks against us and the Marines,” said Ahmed through an interpreter.
Still, Iraqi and U.S. military leadership say Iraqi Security Forces will be ready to take over military operations in Al Anbar by year’s end. In the meantime, Kilo Company’s Marines, who are “doing extraordinary things most young American men are not willing to do,” said Santiago, will continue to prepare Iraqi soldiers to operate independently.
“Morale is still high and the Marines from Kilo Company are a band of brothers,” said Santiago. “They are leaning on one another for support until they return to Hawaii.”
Email Sgt. Seigle at: firstname.lastname@example.org.