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After seven months of battling insurgents, restoring security, North Carolina Marines near end of tour in Iraq

22 Mar 2006 | Sgt. Jerad W. Alexander

After spending seven months of routing out insurgents and stabilizing the Al Qa’im region in western Al Anbar Province, Marines from 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment say they’re leaving the region in better shape then when they arrived last year.

The Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment will replace the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based unit, commonly referred to as “three, six,” in the region as part of a regularly scheduled rotation of U.S. forces in Al Anbar Province. 

Known as the “Teufelhunden Battalion,” 3rd Bn, 6th Marines have spent more than half a year providing stability to the people of western Iraq by training Iraqi Army soldiers and ridding the region of anti-Iraqi forces, thanks to an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign.

The Marines’ battle space here encompasses the Al Qa’im region – a once insurgent stronghold in the northwest region of Al Anbar. The region buttresses the Syrian Border at the Euphrates River, starting with the city of Husaybah and moving east to encompass Karabilah, Sa’dah and Ubaydi among other smaller towns. 

The key to the Marines’ success in the region has been counterinsurgency operations and an increased presence of Coalition Forces here, according to 35-year-old Maj. Christopher P. O’Connor, operations officer. 

“We needed to go after the enemy; we needed to take back the terrain,” said O’Connor, a native of Johnstown, Penn.

The results: a severe decrease of insurgent activity and a more secure area for local government to blossom.

Operation Iron Fist

Operation Iron Fist, which began Oct. 1, 2005, was the clearing, from east to west, of the cities of Sa’dah and Eastern Karabilah.  Companies I, K, and L worked alongside each other, moving house-to-house through the cities, and drove the enemy from them.  The week-long operation resulted in an estimated 51 insurgents killed.

“We met some indirect and direct fire resistance initially,” said O’Connor.  “During the operation, sporadic hard-core fighters would stay and fight; otherwise it was a delaying action.  The biggest challenge was finding the IED’s and mines that they had put out.”

“We thought we were going to get contact constantly,” said Cpl. Benjamin S. Hanenkratt, an anti-tank assaultman for Company K, and Toledo, Ohio native.

Hanenkratt was one of dozens of Marines who led the sweep through region. To his surprise, Hanenkratt said the Marines ended up finding more weapons caches than involvement in actual fire-fights with insurgents.

“Clearing houses, though, is intense,” he said. “You never know what is around each corner.” 

But where Operation Iron Fist ended, Operation Steel Curtain began. Another of the Marines’ major offensives to disrupt insurgent activity along the Syrian border, Steel Curtain put the Marines face-to-face with daily engagements with enemy forces. In the four weeks between the two operations, an estimated 154 insurgents were killed. 

Upon clearing the area, the battalion built battle positions in Sa’dah just south of the Emerald Wadi, a natural dividing line between Eastern Karabilah and Karabilah. These battle positions served as the battalion’s foundation for future security operations.

The Emerald Wadi

Following the completion of Operation Iron Fist, the battalion positioned itself along the ‘Emerald Wadi,’ which is about 1,400 meters long and 600 meters wide. The Wadi became, in sorts, a “no-man’s land” reminiscent of World War I, where U.S. Marines are positioned on one side, insurgents on the other, with an open area in between. 

Insurgents fired upon the Marines nearly daily, who responded with the combined arms of tanks, amphibious assault vehicles, snipers, dismounted infantry and airpower to eliminate scores of enemy.

Sgt. Scott M. Royal, one of the battalion’s scout-snipers, recalled the daily exchange of sniper fire between coalition and insurgent forces across the Wadi.

“It seemed like every morning the insurgents would start off their attacks across the wadi with rockets, then snipers would shoot at us off-and-on all day whenever they saw movement,” said Royal, a native of Rochester, N.Y.

Operation Steel Curtain

Due to the Marines’ consistent presence across the Wadi, insurgent forces reinforced their position along the Wadi. The move was a feint by the Marines – they wanted the insurgents to believe they would simply move across the Wadi and into the enemy’s path.

“We made them think we were coming across the wadi.  Instead we moved through the desert, coming in behind them without them knowing it all,” said O’Connor.

On Nov. 5, 2005, with more than 150 insurgents dead as,a  result of  their first major offensive, the battalion launched Operation Steel Curtain – perhaps the Marines’ largest offensive to date in the region. The Marines cleared the cities of Husaybah and Karabilah during the 18-day operation, working with several other Marine and U.S. Army units to sweep the cities clear of anti-Iraqi forces.  Approximately 2,500 Marines, sailors, soldiers and Iraqi Army soldiers swept into the city, fighting insurgents house-to-house.

“[Steel Curtain] was the coolest thing I ever did,” said Hanenkratt.  “It was like a tidal wave,” he added, referring to the numbers of Coalition personnel who overwhelmed insurgent forces.

“We saw a lot of sniper and [rocket propelled grenade] fire, especially on the first day,” said Chardon, Ohio, native Lance Cpl. Shane M. Cocchi, a 20-year-old rifleman with Company I, 3rd Bn., 6th Marines. “It was fast, intense… we kicked down a lot of doors.  It was just awesome.”

The operation saw an additional 250 suspected enemy dead and provided the Iraqi populous in the region an insurgent-free place to live and work, according to the Marines.

“We're able to progress now with getting consistent (electrical) power, free and clean running water for all the villages up there, as well as starting to rebuild the hospitals and the schoolhouses that have suffered over the last three years,” said Col. Stephen W. Davis, who commanded all Marine forces in western Al Anbar Province for the past year, during a Pentagon press briefing last month.

Bringing in the Security, Reconstruction

Upon clearing the major cities in the Al Qa’im region and Ubaydi – a town about 15 miles east of the Syrian Border – last spring by the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based 2nd Bn., 1st Marines, the Marines and sailors of 3/6, along with their Iraqi Army counterparts, were able to integrate themselves into the towns to interact with the local populous in order to keep insurgents from reentering the region, according to O’Connor.

With the enemy removed from the cities in the region, key democracy-building events occurred, namely two elections that occurred in mid-October and again in mid-December. 

The local elections contributed 500 votes in the first election and a larger 23,000 votes in the second, something that was not possible in the past.  In addition to a democratic voting process, introductory humanitarian assistance and government infrastructure rebuilding has been possible with the help of the 6th Civil Affairs Group. 

The 6th Civil Affairs Group was able, as a result of the towns being cleared, to come into the cities here and begin reconstruction efforts – buildings damaged during fighting were repaired, basic utilities such as water and power were restored, and key government municipal buildings built.  Schools were opened after nearly a year of inactivity.

Afghanistan experience paid off in Iraq

The battalion’s senior enlisted member, Sgt. Maj. Scott L. Theakston, summarized the Marines’ and Iraqi soldiers’ success in this region in one word: “Professionalism.”

“Everything we’ve done over here we’ve prepared for,” said Theakston, a 40-year-old Pittsburgh native. “We trained for what we wanted to accomplish.” 

The Marines’ success in this western Al Anbar Province region stems from the lessons they learned during combat operations in Afghanistan, said O’Connor. Many of the unit’s Marines serving in Iraq deployed in 2004 during Operation Enduring Freedom. The battalion spent roughly seven months in Afghanistan, where they conducted operations against Taliban and Al Qaida forces, which gave the Marines an understanding of operating in a combat environment.

“Our [noncommissioned officers] are smart and mature.  They’ve seen operations in Afghanistan, they understood coming in overly aggressive [here would] have a detriment on success,” said O’Connor.

Nearly half of the battalion’s Marines – about 500 - are Enduring Freedom veterans.

“The insurgents in Afghanistan were tougher fighters than those here,” said Hanenkratt, a veteran of Afghanistan combat operations.  “Out here it’s all [Military Operations in Urban Terrain] whereas in Afghanistan it wasn’t.  Out here, you have to beat the IED.”

As the Marines prepare to redeploy to Camp Lejeune, N.C., they’re beginning to look back on their tour in Iraq and are realizing the impact they made here.

“I feel a lot better about myself,” said Cocchi, who is looking forward to visiting with family in Ohio after he returns to Camp Lejeune.  “I feel I’ve done something important.  I have a lot more pride in my country and in myself since coming here.  But am I glad to be heading home soon?  Oh yeah!”

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