BARWANAH, Iraq -- Despite a recent rash of insurgent attacks, Marines in Barwanah say they are making notable progress equipping the Iraqi Army with the skills to take over security operations in this city of 30,000 nestled along the Euphrates River northwest of Baghdad.
Less than a month ago the soldiers and Marines formed a mounted mobile assault platoon – or “MAP,” as the Marines call it – capable of responding quickly to enemy attacks against Coalition Forces on foot.
The new platoon proved to be a big step for Iraqi forces – the MAP platoon captured eight insurgents after responding to a firefight between Marines on foot and local insurgents.
Mounted in humvees, the mobile assault platoon gives Iraqi Security Forces here the means to respond to incidents much quicker than on foot, said Capt. Michael Hudson, commanding officer of Lima Company of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
The Hawaii-based Marine battalion has spent four-plus months now in the Haditha Triad region, which includes Barwanah, fighting insurgents, working with locals to improve local economy and quality of life, and training Iraqi soldiers.
“We are spending all day patrolling the city with the Iraqi Army to combat insurgents and cut down on their attacks,” said 2nd Lt. Chris Toomey, 24, a Lima Company platoon commander. “I am impressed with the way the soldiers are handling the attacks and interacting with the local populace.”
When the soldiers are not on patrol in Barwanah’s dusty and winding streets, they’re spending a lot of time in a classroom reviewing skills such as map-reading, hand and arms signals and the use of escalation of force, said Toomey, a native of Arlington, Mass.
“The soldiers are thinking for themselves now,” said Toomey. “They know what to look for on patrols, such as possible IEDs and how to react to insurgent attacks.”
More notable progress came earlier this month when the company of Iraqi soldiers here, who are partnered with Lima Company, conducted an independent company-sized security operation – they cordoned-off and searched a village in the city for insurgents and weapons caches. The soldiers also talked to the local populace about future police recruitment.
The company of Iraqi soldiers is part of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division – the Iraqi Army battalion partnered with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines in the Haditha region.
So far, the battalion has conducted more than 10 independent company-level operations in the past half year, according to Lt. Col. Owen R. Lovejoy, team chief for 2nd Battalion’s military transition team.
“The IA (Iraqi Army) will fight well when they are trained, led, and equipped,” said Lovejoy via email. “(They) are learning and getting better.”
Still, there’s more work to be done in this region. There are no police forces within the Haditha Triad region – an area of about 75,000 people along the Euphrates.
The establishment of a police force is necessary for Iraqis to maintain law and order on their own, said Hudson.
Although the soldiers did not find any contraband during the operation, they showed they were capable of performing on their own – a necessity for them to relieve U.S. forces here of security operations one day, said Hudson.
“We are getting better every day at fighting the insurgents,” said 'Mohammed,' an Iraqi soldier serving alongside American Marines here. “Now that we are mobile, we can respond to situations even faster.”
The MAP’s quick response recently led to the capture of eight insurgents. The humvee-borne Iraqi soldiers even assisted the Marines in a gunfight against insurgents recently, and in a separate incident, responded to an IED discovery, providing security for their U.S. counterparts, who discovered the roadside bomb.
“None of this would have been possible for the soldiers to accomplish when the Marines arrived here in March because they did not have the necessary skills,” said Hudson, 33, and native of Concord, Calif.
Some Marines say their task of training soldiers and fighting insurgents is frustrating because of the long hours involved and the language barrier, but they are pleased with their progress nonetheless.
“We are constantly getting into firefights out here,” said Cpl. Rogelio Rodriguez, a 26-year-old squad leader. “I just tell the Marines to keep their cool and not return fire indiscriminately and they have done just that.”
Earlier this month Rodriguez, a native of Chicago, was attacked with mortars at an observation point. Moments after the initial mortars fell, a band of insurgents opened fire on the Marines with small-arms weapons. The Marines held their ground and returned fire and the insurgents fled.
For the last leg of their deployment, the Marines want local leaders to cooperate on recruiting police officers – deemed a “must have” by U.S. forces in order for the region to be stabilized and eventually allow U.S. forces to withdraw from the region, said Hudson. A police force means locals can provide their own security, as most police officers recruited from this region will return to serve in their hometowns.
“The insurgents are still intimidating the local leaders in the community that cooperate with coalition forces by threatening them with murder or kidnapping their loved ones,” said Hudson. “We are going after the insurgents every day and the Iraqi Army is spreading the word that we are going to recruit a police force no matter how long it takes.”
For those who qualify to become police officers, the pay can sometimes add up to more than what some doctors and lawyers in the community make, said Hudson.
“We are going to be persistent in fighting the insurgents and assembling a police (force), said Hudson. “We are taking the final days of this deployment one day at a time and focusing on improving the soldiers as much as possible for the incoming Marines that will relieve us.”
The 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, also known as “America’s Battalion,” is scheduled to depart Iraq later this year and will be replaced by another Hawaii-based unit.
Email Sgt. Roe F. Seigle at email@example.com