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Marines dedicated to training Iraqi soldiers amidst insurgent attacks

4 Jul 2006 | Sgt. Roe F. Seigle

Lance Cpl. Douglas Tetreault carries a spent round fired from an AK-47 assault rifle, which was surgically removed from his thigh last month after he was shot during a firefight with insurgents in Haditha, Iraq.

The 21-year-old native of Adams, Mass., wears a nine-inch scar on his thigh every time he steps “outside the wire” to go on combined patrols with Iraqi soldiers in Haditha – a city of 30,000 nestled along the Euphrates River northwest of Baghdad.

“It felt like someone had kicked me in the leg at first,” said Tetreault, after a two-hour patrol in 115-degree heat through Haditha’s volatile streets June 24. “I recovered pretty quickly and I am glad to be back with my fellow Marines.” 

For the past three-plus months, Tetreault, and the rest of the Marines from the Hawaii-based India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, have spent countless hours training and mentoring Iraqi soldiers assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division.  The Iraqi battalion is partnered with the Marine unit.

By summer’s end, 75 percent of all Iraqi Army Brigades will be leading security operations throughout Iraq, said Gen. George Casey, commander, Multinational Force Iraq, during a Pentagon press briefing June 22, in Washington, D.C. By year’s end, “eight or nine” of the 10 Iraqi Army Divisions will be leading combat operations instead of coalition forces, said Casey to reporters.

“The progress of the (Iraqi) Army continues to go well,” said Gen. Casey. “Today there are three Iraqi divisions, 18 Iraqi brigades and some 69 Iraqi battalions that are actually operating in the lead across Iraq.”

Haditha is located in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, a region which has been deemed by Coalition Forces and mass media alike as arguably the most insurgent-active province in Iraq, and boasts the least-developed Iraqi Security Forces in the country.

Iraqi soldiers have shown considerable improvement in the past three months in their military proficiency, said Capt. Andy Lynch, India Company’s commanding officer.  The soldiers have become better at spotting IEDs, and collecting intelligence used to capture insurgents. They have also improved in their ability to spot dangers on patrols that Marines otherwise would not.

Three months ago, the soldiers would not go on patrols unless the Marines were with them and were only able to provide minimal assistance in gathering intelligence and spotting potential dangers.  

“They have also established a mutual trust with the local population and local leaders by being firm, but fair with them,” said Lynch, a 31-year-old from Chicago.

The Iraqi soldiers enforce the rules and regulations established by the new Iraqi government, which are placed to protect the local citizens from insurgent activity, said Lynch. 

The Iraqi Army treats the local citizens with respect and professionalism.  Sometime the soldiers must detain locals suspected of insurgent activity in order to keep the peace the Soldiers and coalition forces have established. Doing so deters the threat on the streets of Haditha, said Lynch. 

However, enemy attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces have remained steady, he said. 

The Marines’ forward operating base is frequently pelted with mortar rounds – a sign of a still active insurgency, the Marines say. Last month approximately 15 insurgents attacked  India Company’s firm base with small-arms fire – rifles, pistols and machine guns, said 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Ben Rivers, who was manning an observation post when the base was attacked.  

“One of the insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the bunker I was in,” said Rivers, a native of Beaufort, S.C. “I never had that much adrenaline go through me in my life.”

Immediately following the attack, Marines and Iraqi soldiers returned fire, flooded the streets, and captured 12 suspected insurgents, said Rivers. 

“It (the insurgency) is keeping us on our toes,” said Rivers, who often patrols the streets with Iraqi soldiers. “The soldiers are fighting the insurgents with us and they (soldiers) are learning the same tactics we use to combat (insurgents.)”

Pfc. Shane Shaffer, 19, agrees that the soldiers are making progress.

Last month, Shaffer’s unit was caught in an ambush while crossing a bridge on the Euphrates River. Iraqi soldiers accompanying Shaffer’s platoon that day reacted quickly and effectively to the attack, said Shaffer. The soldiers sought cover and returned fire appropriately, and eventually suppressed the attack. Shaffer said the Iraqis’ performance that day is indicative of the progress they’ve made, both in training and while conducting counterinsurgency operations. 

“They have become much more tactically proficient since we got here in March,” said Shaffer, a machine gunner and native of Inkom, Idaho.  “When they would go on patrol, it looked like a bunch of people just walking down the street with weapons.”

Now, the soldiers have learned to patrol using proper patrolling techniques and communication methods.  They also exhibit better discipline when combating insurgents to assure civilians are not injured, added Shaffer. 

However, direct attacks against U.S. and Iraqi military forces are not the Marines’ only concern in this region, said Shaffer. 

Improvised explosive devices – roadside bombs placed by insurgents -- remain a constant threat to the Marines and their Iraqi Army counterparts. Still, the Marines and soldiers are noticing and disabling many of the makeshift explosives before they detonate, said Shaffer. 

Last week, Marines on patrol in a marketplace here discovered two IEDs, both of which were disposed of without incident.  Hours later, another one detonated and a Marine received wounds to his lower legs. 

“The Marines are showing remarkable dedication to their mission and to themselves,” said Lynch. “That is impressive for the environment they are in.  They are putting in long hours everyday to keep the streets of Haditha safe.” 

About halfway through a six-month deployment, 3rd Battalion is scheduled to return to the United States this fall. Another Hawaii-based unit will replace the battalion, which deployed last year to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. 

“I miss my family,” said Tetreault.  “But I am glad I still get to leave with the rest of my fellow Marines.” 

Email Sgt. Seigle at: seiglemf@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil