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Iraqi Army uncovers hidden weapons inside Fallujah’s souk district

2 Oct 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

It was a good day for the good guys.

Iraqi Army soldiers discovered five separate weapons caches, including materials to make improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 assault rifles and ammunition.  The discoveries were made during a search of Fallujah’s souk, or market district of the city.  The operation was conducted by Iraqi soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division alongside Marines from 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment.

Both units are serving with Regimental Combat Team 5.

“Our goal was to disrupt insurgent activity in that area,” said 1st Lt. Jason J. Maraffi, a 26-year-old from Richmond, Va., who serves as Military Transition Team advisor for the Iraqi battalion. 

“These guys don’t attack where they live and where they work,” added Capt. Christopher M. Westhoff, a 34-year-old from Rifle, Colo., who also advises the Iraqi battalion.  “We didn’t think we’d find any bad guys, but we were pretty sure we’d find some stuff.”

Iraqi soldiers cordoned the market section of the city along with Marines early in the morning, just as business was picking up.  Shops were open and Iraqis were busy buying and selling everything from fruit to furniture.  This section of the city is where commerce takes place and it was suspected of holding a few weapons.

It was also an area known to be dangerous.

“The history of the area is that there have been grenade attacks,” Westhoff said.  “We had to watch the rooftops so no one drops anything on you.”

But insurgents wouldn’t be able find much refuge after Iraqis and Marines surrounded the area.  The narrow streets were filled with the chocolate-chip patterned uniforms of the Iraqi soldiers in their sector.  Armored humvees, both that of Iraqis and Marines, chugged through the streets.

“Once you’ve got the cordon set, it’s the outside of the cordon you have to worry about,” Maraffi said.  “On the outside, someone could take a shot and run.  There’s nowhere for them to run on the inside, so it’s more likely they’ll leave their weapons and walk out.”

The flood of Iraqi soldiers and Marines sent many Fallujans to the outlying areas.  Some stood and watched from beyond the perimeters and others offered to open their stores.

Iraqi soldiers hammered open locks and for those that wouldn’t budge, they called in Marine engineers to blast them open.  Inside the cavernous maze of shops, back in dark alleys and behind aluminum door shops, Iraqi soldiers turned over everything looking for telltale signs of weapons. 

Movement through the area was slow.  Doors were double and sometimes triple locked.  Warnings were called out over radios about controlled blasts by Marine engineers to cut locks that proved too tough for sledgehammers.

It didn’t take long, though, before Iraqi soldiers began to uncover what they suspected.  The first discovery came just blocks from the starting point for the operation.  Soldiers found electronic parts known to be used in making IEDs. 

“We’re taking their stuff away from them,” Westhoff said. 

Iraqi soldiers dug deeper and pulled out large spools of wire, an AK-47 with a laser sight and other banned materials.  Another box they pulled from the small shop contained binoculars, a sniper scope, ammunition, magazines for a sniper rifle and AK-47, explosives and a mortar sight and fuses. 

A used rocket tube was discovered in the back of a furniture store a little later and just around the corner, Iraqi soldiers uncovered hidden rocket-propelled grenades and launcher, AK-47 assault rifles and other small arms along with the ammunition for them.

Further down the road, Iraqi soldiers found crates of bulk explosives and cans of machine-gun ammunition. 

“We wanted to make sure they were being safe when we were doing the searches,” said Staff Sgt. Tyler L. Morgan, a 25-year-old from Caldwell, Idaho, who serves as an advisor to the Iraqi battalion.  “We wanted them to be careful to make sure the doors weren’t wired to explode.”

Still, he said he was impressed with what the Iraqi soldiers found.  They went into a dangerous part of the city and pulled weapons away from insurgents who intended to use them against Iraqi soldiers or Marines.  Their ability to find those weapons is indicative, he said, of their ability to operate.

‘They’re really good at going through a search and being systematic,” Morgan said. 

With each find, Iraqi soldiers also grew more excited.  They knew they were putting a dent into the insurgents’ ability to move weapons through Fallujah.

“In past searches, they’d get tired and want to stop,” Maraffi said.  “Today, they did good.  Once we got past the halfway point, they kept up with it.”

Iraqi soldiers’ operating effectively largely by themselves was just as beneficial as getting the weapons off the streets.  Fallujans are able to see their own army taking security matters into their own hands and realize their forces are capable of putting insurgents on the run.

“When we go to an area that we don’t typically work in, the people are very happy to see the Iraqi Army,” Westhoff said.  “The people react differently to the IA.  There’s more interaction between them.  It’s like having 100 interpreters with you.”

The successful discoveries also go far in instilling in Iraqi soldiers their own abilities to carry out independent operations.  Iraq soldiers accomplished the mission along with Marines, but they worked their own sector.  They searched each and every shop, provided their own security and left the area without needing major support from Marines.

“Operations like this build confidence,” Westhoff explained.  “We just spent a day in a very hairy place and didn’t lose anybody.  They have the tactical ability.  They have the leadership.  They just need more soldiers.”

“They need Iraqi engineers,” Maraffi added.  “They need Iraqi EOD,” or explosive ordnance disposal technicians.

Westhoff explained Iraqi commanders made extra efforts to ensure their part of the search of Fallujah’s marketplace would be successful.  Soldiers who were supposed to go on leave were held back and others were called back off leave early.

“They like their job,” he said.  “They commute all the way from Basra to do this for low pay and people want to kill you.  They amaze me.”