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Marines keep watchful eyes on Iraq’s rural western region

29 Mar 2006 | Cpl. Graham A. Paulsgrove

Trading one desert for another, Marines based in California’s Mojave Desert have returned for another deployment to Iraq’s Al Anbar Province.

For some of the Marines, it’s their third deployment in as many years in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Marines, from the Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, are charged with conducting continued security and stability operations in this vast desert region of Iraq.

But the Marines have an additional mission this go-around: to train Iraqi soldiers to take over the region by year’s end. The unit’s “area of operations” spans from the Iraqi-Jordanian border to more than 120 miles east into Al Anbar’s southwestern desert.

The Marines work hand-in-hand with the Iraqi soldiers, who are beginning to take the lead in more operations in western Al Anbar Province.

It’s a mission they don’t take lightly.

Block the bad guys

“We have mainly been doing cordon and knocks in the towns, route security, and manning check points with the Iraqi soldiers,” said Cpl. Jeremy D. Quackenbush, describing the battalion’s first few weeks in the region.

At the Joint Border Control Center here Marines and Iraqi soldiers maintain a heavy presence in this bermed-up city.  Iraqi and Coalition Forces conduct combined operations here to screen for would-be smugglers coming in and out of Ar Rutbah – the most populated city in this barren region with 25,000 people.

In late January, Coalition Forces built an eight-foot high dirt berm around the city to help curb insurgent activity here.

Traditionally a hub for smugglers and terrorists looking for somewhere to hide out in Iraq, Rutbah now has three entry control points – the only way in or out of the city – which are manned by Iraqi soldiers. The soldiers check IDs and search vehicles in hopes of preventing smugglers and criminals from entering, and eventually leaving, the city.

The increased security measures here were put in place to help Coalition and Iraqi military forces stop criminals, blocking them before they can venture further east into Al Anbar Province, The road which leads from the Iraqi-Jordanian border also cuts through Rutbah and leads to Iraqi cities synonymous with violence – Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baghdad.

“With our forces and the Iraqi forces, we control the entrance and exit to the main city in our area of operation, stemming the flow of insurgents in and out of the city,” said Sgt. Maj. Leland W. Hatfield, the battalion’s senior enlisted.

Today, vehicles passed in and out of Rutbah - Iraq’s last populated city before reaching the Jordanian-Iraqi border - without incident. All seems quiet. The Marines keep an eye out from their post here, looking for any suspicious activity. Iraqi soldiers do their duty - search vehicles and check paperwork of people entering the city.

“We sat in elevated positions on the sides of the main road watching traffic, to see what everybody was doing,” said Yorktown, Indiana native Staff Sgt. Neil A. McKibben, 34, a platoon sergeant with the battalion. “It was pretty quiet.”

Presence equals security, stability and success

Though the area has been quiet recently, the Marines leave nothing to chance. They maintain a strong presence in the communities here, speaking with townspeople during their patrols, looking for signs of intimidation of locals, weapons caches or other insurgent activity. They talk to townspeople to ensure there is no insurgent activity going on.

For the most part, everything seems in order.

“The people were very receptive to us – a few told us that they feel safer when we are in the area,” said McKibben.  “The kids smiled at us and the adults waved. Instinct can tell you a lot about a situation, and I could tell the people were being very genuine.”

Interaction between locals and the Marines was friendly, a sign of trust between Coalition Forces and locals here. A few of the interactions were humorous.

One woman jokingly referred to her husband as a ‘loser’ because he didn’t have a job and sold their car, according to McKibben.

While the Marines can’t help with locals’ marital problems, they can help the people with a safe place to live and work.

“The citizens have told us that is providing them more safety and comfort,” said Hatfield, who is from Cincinnati, Iowa.

During a recent combined counterinsurgency operation, Marines and Iraqi soldiers detained several wanted insurgents, proof that there is still a need for a military presence in the area.

Though the Marines’ assistance is still required here, Iraqi Security Forces are beginning to have an increasing role in providing their own security here and throughout the rest of Al Anbar Province.

“Everything has been running smoothly,” said Quackenbush, one of the battalion’s team leaders and a Pittsburg native. “The Iraqis are easy to work with and are eager to learn – they are here to make Iraq a better place.”

Improved Force Protection is key

Elsewhere, the Marines are busy combing their enormous area of operations – miles of open desert dotted with small towns. The Marines patrol the roads daily in their Light Armored Vehicles – large, armored, six-wheeled vehicles. They spend hours each day “outside the wire” to keep a watchful eye out for insurgent activity.

But Iraqi and Coalition military forces don’t rely solely on their presence in the region to deter criminal activity. They’ve also stepped-up security measures at both Rutbah and along the Iraqi-Jordanian border to further deny criminals free movement throughout Al Anbar Province.

Nearly 15 months ago, a suicide bomber drove a truck through the Port of Entry at Trebil – located 40 miles west of Rutbah – and into the Marines’ forward operating base there, killing two Marines and injuring six others. Since then, the Iraqi Government and the Marines have beefed up their force protection measures in the hopes of preventing any future attacks.

There’s also a new Port Director at Trebil, Iraqi Maj. Gen. Rhuda, who is credited with helping keep smugglers out of the country by cracking down on internal corruption within the Iraqi Border Patrol unit there and enforcing border control measures. There’s also a new Port Director at the port of entry facility in Walid – just north of Trebil – and Marine officials say he, too, is fighting corruption and smuggling along Iraq’s western border.

A noble mission

But there’s more to the Marines’ mission in this desolate and barren slab of desert than just keeping insurgents and smugglers out. Several weeks ago, the battalion helped one particular group of foreigners travel through Iraq – four busloads of Muslims making a religious pilgrimage to the holy city of Najaf.

The pilgrims, concerned about their safety while traveling in southwestern Iraq, traveled from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to Trebil, where Marines linked up with them and provided armed security for at least a portion of their 370-plus mile trip.

The pilgrims arrived at their destination without incident.

“In the interest of maintaining good relations, we said we would help,” said Maj. Matt Good, the battalion’s operations officer. “Any time we can extend the olive branch, we do.”

Hopefully, the Marines’ deployment will bare more stories such as this one, and less of that seen in main stream media – daily killings, sectarian strife, political struggles within the Iraqi government.

Still a combat zone

But then again, this is still a combat zone, and the Marines and Iraqi soldiers who patrol the border ports, highways and local towns daily say they are prepared for the worst.

Before leaving California for the deployment, the battalion underwent months of preparatory training in Southern California’s desert – home to the Corps’ largest, and perhaps most sophisticated, combined arms training facilities. Marine units are required to spend several weeks there learning skills that will help them survive in Iraq: urban patrolling, how to spot and react to improvised explosive devices, convoy security and even Iraqi cultural courtesies and customs.

“The training … had a level of realism that reinforced what many Marines had learned on their first tour of Iraq and for our new Marines, it opened their eyes of what could happen,” said Hatfield.

Though the deployment means they’ll spend at least half a year away from their friends, families and homes in the United States, the Marines say they know they have a job to do here, and that their sacrifices are not in vain. 

“We will continue to show the Iraqi people that we are sincere in our efforts to provide them with the freedom they desire,” said Hatfield.