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Along Iraqi-Syrian border, Marines’ progress notable despite recent insurgent suicide bombings

20 Jul 2006 | Cpl. Antonio Rosas

Thanks to the protection from his body armor Lance Cpl. Christopher G. West survived a car bomb attack in this Iraqi-Syrian border city of about 30,000.

The protective plate insert inside the 40-pound body armor vest was strong enough to stop a sharp, foot-long piece of metal from wounding West, after a suicide bomber detonated prematurely just inside the barrier of the Marines outpost, July 13, 2006.

“When the explosion went off I couldn’t hear a thing afterwards for a couple of seconds but I remember being hit in the chest with something sharp,” said West, 23, from Calhoun, Ga. “I knew I was hit but I also knew that the body armor had stopped whatever I was hit with.”

Lance Cpl. Lawrence F. Hiller, a 24-year-old Marine machine gunner, who was on post that morning when he fired his M249 G machine gun at the suicide bomber's truck as it sped towards the Marines' post.

Hiller, 24, from Austin, Texas, spotted the truck on a major highway in Karabilah, another border city in western Al Anbar Province, where Marines and Iraqi soldiers maintain one of several security checkpoints.

The truck’s license plates matched a list of suspected insurgents, said Hiller. An Iraqi soldier manning the security checkpoint along the road stopped the truck to investigate. When the truck made a sudden dash towards the Marines’ position, Hiller was ready behind his machine gun.

“I couldn’t believe the guy in the truck was actually thinking about attacking a Marine base,” said Hiller, a machine gunner with the Twenty-nine Palms, Calif.-based 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.  “It didn’t take long to realize what was going on and I knew what I had to do.”

As the truck attempted to maneuver past the maze of artificial barriers at the entrance to the Marines’ outpost, Hiller pummeled the truck with a burst of machine gun fire which detonated the truck’s bomb prematurely.

With engine parts scattered everywhere and a cloud of smoke blanketing the area, the Marines then received small-arms fire from an unknown position. The attack ended shortly after the shots rang out.

The suicide-attack occurred just hours after Marines discovered a different improvised explosive device – roadside bombs planted by terrorists to target U.S. and Iraqi forces – several feet outside the security perimeter of Camp Al Qa’im – an old Iraqi train station converted to a Marine headquarters about 30 miles from the Iraqi-Syrian border.

In this border region of Al Anbar Province, IEDs are the largest threat for U.S. and Iraqi military forces as they have been responsible for the largest amount of Coalition Forces’ deaths.

Marines at Camp Al Qa’im have not come under attack there since November 2005, when insurgents fired mortar rounds at the base, Marine officials here say.

The car bomb was described by Lt. Col. Nicholas F. Marano, the battalion’s commanding officer, as possibly the largest IED attack against Marines deployed near the border.

“Had Lance Cpl. Hiller not been alert at his post, this incident could have easily become catastrophic,” said Marano, a Philadelphia native.

Suicide bombings in this region led to the deaths of five Iraqi police officers last month when insurgents attacked a police station in the nearby city of Husaybah. 

Despite the recent suicide bomb attacks against the Marines’ camp and the Iraqi Police station, the region’s security has improved significantly, according to tribal sheikhs.

“The security situation has improved in the last months and the people here feel safe,” said Mohammed Ahmed Selah, the city mayor of Karabilah. The improved security has also caught the attention of Al Anbar Province Governor Maamoon Sami Rasheed al-Awani, who made promises to begin major construction projects in the area.

Since the battalion arrived here four months ago, the Marines have encountered mostly IED attacks, the Marines say.

Firefights between insurgents and Marines in this area have become rare since a large-scale offensive operation was launched in November 2005 to hamper the terrorists’ control of the area. Back then, a previous Marine unit fought face-to-face daily with enemy forces during the four-week operation, which resulted in an estimated 150 insurgents killed or captured.

The Marines currently operating along the border, like Hiller and West, are responsible for providing security to the region and mentoring Iraqi Security Forces.

The Marines’ progress with Iraqi Security Forces in this region has led to three Iraqi-Syrian border cities to open new police stations in the last two months. 

“When we got here there were zero police on the street, now there are over 600,” said Marano on the battalion’s website.

The southern California-based battalion is scheduled to return to the U.S. in September.

Email Cpl. Rosas at rosasa@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil