Marines Take Aim at a New Hot Spot
U.S. Marines accompanied by Iraqi security forces launched a new offensive early today aimed at regaining control of northern Babil province, a region just south of Baghdad beset by kidnappings, shootings and carjackings for more than a year.
Backed by helicopters and airplanes, the combined forces raided more than a dozen homes in this small market town and arrested 32 men who they believe have been involved in the long-running series of attacks on Iraqi national guardsmen, U.S. troops and civilians.
Over the next few days, officials said, more than 5,000 American and British troops, along with 1,200 Iraqis, were expected to take part in the offensive, dubbed Operation Plymouth Rock.
Terming it their first major post-Fallouja campaign to regain control of an insurgent-riddled area outside Baghdad, officials said they would continue a series of preplanned raids in towns and farming areas largely within a so-called “death triangle” of cities bordered by Latifiya, Mahmoudiya and Yousifiya. U.S. troops have also engaged in a series of counterattacks to quell resistance in Mosul, Baghdad and other towns in the wake of their offensive to regain control of the rebel stronghold of Fallouja.
“We are going to push the fight back out to the enemy while he’s reeling,” said Capt. Tad Douglas, 28, who led an elite reconnaissance platoon of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the raids. “We’ve seen fighters from Fallouja filtering down here, and we’re going to take the offensive while they’re still licking their wounds.”
The operation began in the predawn darkness less than a day after Iraqi security forces recovered 12 bodies in Latifiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, where kidnappings of highway travelers have been commonplace for months. Five of the bodies had been beheaded, and one was identified as that of an Iraqi national guardsman kidnapped from a nearby town several weeks ago.
Earlier this month, U.S. Marines found the bodies of about 20 Iraqi national guard recruits, some in civilian clothes, who had been killed execution-style in a mosque and elsewhere west of Latifiya.
The largely Sunni Muslim towns and small cities in this rural region just a short drive south of Baghdad are home to an estimated 1 million people and were a stronghold of deposed President Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
The region is also home to many of Hussein’s Fedayeen fighters and elite Republican Guards, who were among the greatest losers in last year’s U.S.-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq as Hussein’s armed forces were defeated and then disbanded.
American officers believe Sunni rebels are also responsible for blowing up bridges and planting the roadside bombs that make north Babil a terrifying gantlet for anyone traveling between Baghdad and the Shiite Muslim cities to the south.
With operations in nearby Fallouja winding down, the Marines say they are now turning their attention to the problems south of Baghdad, where thousands of U.S. troops are being assisted by about 850 British soldiers who were recently dispatched from bases in southern Iraq to relieve U.S. forces preparing for Fallouja.
To succeed, the Marines, assisted by the British and Iraqi troops, will have to root out the insurgents among residents of the farming towns and villages that run along the Euphrates. Fed by the river and a network of canals, the land is a lush plain of farms and market towns, a landscape of high grass and deep ditches that provide cover for rebels setting up fake checkpoints or firing on convoys along the highway.
The area was also a center of Hussein’s military industries and munitions plants and remains awash in explosives and skilled workers who know how to use them. Among the facilities in the region is the Al Qaqaa ammunition site, where about 380 tons of high-grade explosives were believed to have been looted after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.
Marines have uncovered several weapons caches in northern Babil province buried in dirt fields. The arms include mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and 500-pound bombs. At this point, though, they believe they have made only a dent in the supply.
In undertaking the operation, Marine Col. Ron Johnson said the aim was to squeeze the insurgents by taking territory and freedom of movement from them. Johnson’s 2,200 Marines at Forward Operating Base Kalsu have already increased their presence in the province through more aggressive patrolling of towns and back roads.
The heightened tempo is aimed at the insurgents or criminals who had grown accustomed to moving through the province with near-impunity. Marines have detained more than 600 Iraqis in raids or at roadblocks since early August.
“There are multiple factions competing for power with a multitude of interests -- some of them are no more than thugs -- and they want to take advantage of the chaos,” said Johnson, who declared that “there will be no place my men won’t go” in north Babil.
The insurgents have fired back on patrols and on low-flying helicopters backing up the ground forces. They have also planted more homemade bombs along the province’s roads. The number of such explosive devices that have gone off or been defused has more than doubled since early fall.
It is not known how many of the fighters who fled Fallouja have retreated to north Babil. The Americans say they have received sketchy reports of sightings of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who has taken credit for the beheadings of hostages and numerous attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.
As much of a prize as Zarqawi would be to the Marines, the American and British troops here say the fight in north Babil goes deeper, touching the heartland of the well-armed and desperate former fighters for Hussein’s regime.
“You can’t have a functioning country where Shiites cannot drive from their cities to the capital,” said a senior military officer at Kalsu. “The insurgents know it. And everyone in Baghdad knows it.”
Wallace is traveling with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Times staff writer Ashraf Khalil in Baghdad contributed to this report.