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Iraqi soldiers keep criminals out of former smuggler’s town

11 May 2006 | Cpl. Graham A. Paulsgrove

In this urban city located in the center of miles of open desert in western Al Anbar province, Iraqi soldiers are taking the lead in operations to keep criminals and insurgents out of the region.

The Iraqi soldiers are doing the majority of the work here – checking IDs, searching cars and people at the city’s various checkpoints – while Coalition Forces assist.

“It’s more us helping the Iraqis, than the other way around,” said Cpl. Victor M. Moreno, one of the Marine battalion’s scout team leaders. “They’ve been doing fantastic.”

In recent months, U.S. Marines here say Iraqi soldiers have continually progressed towards operating independently, evidenced by their security operations here.

Rutbah is the most populated city (about 25,000 people) in Anbar’s southwestern region – a mostly barren desert stretching from the Jordan/Iraq border to 120 miles east.

Once known as a smugglers’ town, Rutbah is the first major city along the supply routes from Jordan and Syria eventually leading to the Al Anbar Province’s known hotspots- Ramadi, Fallujah and Baghdad, according to Col. Stephen W. Davis during a Pentagon press briefing several months ago. Davis was the commander of Marine forces in western Al Anbar province in 2005.

“This town had the unfortunate occurrence of being strategically placed there -- very convenient for smugglers, terrorists, insurgents to operate in and out of there,” said Davis.

Coalition forces and Iraqi soldiers have been working together to root out the insurgents. In January, an eight-foot tall berm was built around the city to prevent insurgents from entering Rutbah, requiring all traffic entering and exiting the city to pass through the checkpoints manned by the Iraqi soldiers.

So far, Iraqi soldiers have caught 64 insurgents since the coalition and Iraqi military forces beefed-up security measures here five months ago.

The Marines who work here daily say the city used to be a base of operations for insurgents - from planning attacks to storing weapons.

“We assess that many criminal and insurgent activities are planned and financed from Rutbah,” said Maj. Ken Kassner, executive officer for the Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, which arrived here nearly two months ago – about a year after the unit’s last deployment to this very area in Al Anbar province. 

“By maintaining the security of Rutbah, we significantly affect the ability of the insurgents to operate,” said Kassner. 

And the plan is working – a full gamut of terrorists have been caught by the Marines and Iraqi soldiers in and around Rutbah - from those who plant roadside bombs, to high-level officials in the insurgency, according to Moreno. 

“Insurgents have been fleeing [the city] and we have been catching them [at the checkpoints],” he said.

“[The berm and checkpoints have] been getting rave reviews from the population down there because for the first time in years now, the insurgents can't freely travel in and out of that city -- one more step in making western Al Anbar a prohibitive environment for the insurgents and terrorists to operate in,” said Davis during the press briefing.

The smuggling trade through Al Anbar contributes to the insurgency by financing criminal operations, and supplying weapons and munitions, according to Kassner.

But with Iraqi soldiers taking more of the operational workload to secure the city, Coalition and Iraqi forces have been able to curb insurgent activity here and ultimately block insurgents’ once-direct route from other countries to the heart of Al Anbar province, according to Kassner, a native of Couplan, Texas.

“The Iraqi soldiers are the key to our success,” he said. “Ultimately, they will be the ones to fully determine the outcome of this war.”

The Marines who operate in this region have taken the role of supervisors – teaching the Iraqi soldiers in the functions of their duties — directing traffic, searching cars and personnel – so they gain confidence and maintain a presence in the local community, according to Moreno, of Modesto, Calif. 

While the Iraqi soldiers are making progress in their abilities to operate without the support of the Marines here, there is still work to be done before the uniformed Iraqis are 100-percent ready to operate independently, according to Sgt. Dale Fenner, a 27-year-old from Indianapolis and one of the battalion’s squad leaders.

“We don’t want to prematurely leave before they’re ready,” said Fenner, who spends his days supervising the Iraqis and verifying the validity of the IDs of the men passing through the checkpoints and ensuring they are not known terrorists. “This is a work in progress – they are pretty good but have a long way to go.”

While the Marines are pleased with the progress of their Iraqi counterparts, the soldiers need more time, training, and experience before they will be given the rubber stamp of approval by Coalition Forces as capable of operating fully independently. 

The Marines fully understand that the transition will not take place overnight.

“It took years of training for me as a Marine to get to where I am now, and it will take years for them as well,” said Fenner.

But the Marines here say the Iraqis’ progress has been more than just standing posts and checking identification. The Iraqi soldiers have learned the basics of command structure, and more importantly, the role of small-unit leadership and the value of ensuring the welfare of their subordinates - traits crucial to any military organization’s success and efficiency, according to Moreno, 21. 

The Iraqi soldiers have their own squad leaders in charge at each of the checkpoints around Rutbah, who ensure the soldiers have food, water, and time to rest, according to Moreno. 

They also “make sure they wear all their [safety] gear,” said Moreno – helmets and body armor.

It may be a work in progress for the Marines, but the Iraqis’ hard work is paying off – the berm and checkpoints throughout the city seem to keep the bad guys from coming in, said Fenner.

“The insurgents can’t get what they need [into the city] to get things started,” said Fenner. “I think that is what’s keeping things quiet.”

Moreover, the Iraqi soldiers are the ones who communicate and interact with city’s residents, further putting the Iraqis in the driver’s seat of security operations while coalition forces take a back-seat role, according to the Marines. 

Here, locals are more inclined to speak with Iraqi soldiers than the Marines since the Iraqi soldiers have a better understanding of their country’s culture and language than the Marines, according to Capt. Michael Nakonieczny, a 32-year-old Marine company commander from Buena Park, Calif.

“The Iraqi army is here to protect the people and each day we get closer and closer to complete Iraqi control of the city,” said Nakonieczny. “[The Iraqi soldiers] are a tremendous (force) multiplier.”