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Rebels Said to Be Battling One Another

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Times Staff Writer

The Marines stationed at Camp Gannon, on the outskirts of this outlaw town where insurgents are thick on the ground, are used to being shot at. So when they recently heard AK-47 weapons fire and dozens of mortar blasts echoing throughout the town, they weren’t surprised.

This time, however, they weren’t the target.

“They were shooting at each other,” said Capt. Frank Diorio, the camp’s commanding officer.

From observation posts on the edges of the camp, Marines have watched insurgents lob dozens of mortar rounds at one another and engage in hours-long gunfights. And townspeople, troops here believe, have occasionally joined the fight.

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Some Marines speculate that one group of insurgents may have attacked another faction. They believe that local groups are fighting those aligned with foreign militants.

Sitting at the intersection of the Syrian border and the Euphrates River, this ancient town of 30,000 people has for centuries been a crossroads for wanderers, traders and smugglers, existing virtually independent of any national authority.

Even Saddam Hussein failed to tame much of the vast western Al Anbar province, with its oceans of sand and isolated Sunni Arab tribes.

In the last two years, the U.S. military says, Husaybah has become a thoroughfare and training ground for insurgent fighters flowing in from Syria.

“The insurgents get training and finances here and then move east,” Diorio said. “Now it seems a lot more are staying around. They want to make this area another Fallouja, but many of the locals don’t want any part of it.”

Lt. Ronnie Choe, the camp’s intelligence officer, said many area residents who initially fought alongside insurgents trickling across the border have since become disillusioned with the militants. Whether this is wishful thinking on the Marines’ part or reality cannot be determined; it is unsafe to venture into the town for interviews.

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“Tensions in Husaybah arose from foreign fighters coming here and staying here. Even the imams have been intimidated by the mujahedin,” Choe said, using the local term for the rebels.

Last month, he said, insurgents kidnapped a cleric who had delivered a Friday sermon asking foreign fighters to stop attacking Americans from Husaybah because it put townspeople at risk when Marines returned fire. Choe also described how foreign fighters had hijacked the weekly sermons.

“You’ll hear one voice giving the sermon, and then someone else will get on,” he said.

Choe noted that calls on the camp’s tip line were increasing and said those contacts were his best source of intelligence.

Two weeks ago, troops raided a house in Husaybah and found a weapons cache. The family readily acknowledged that insurgents had hidden contraband in their home, Diorio said.

“They said, ‘Yeah, they came and put weapons here. And before they left they shot my son.’ ”

Husaybah’s transformation from insurgent thoroughfare to a destination point for foreign fighters was evident during a large-scale attack on Camp Gannon last month. In that attack, 30 to 40 insurgents fired Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to divert attention from three vehicle bombs -- a pickup truck, a large dump truck and a fire engine. The drivers of the two larger vehicles tried to breach the camp’s inner security wall.

The attack failed, and only two Marines were slightly injured. But the high level of planning and coordination indicated foreign involvement and a large commitment of time and resources, U.S. military officials said. Al Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the attack.

“That attack showed us that they have the capability to do a high-end attack,” said Lt. Col. Timothy S. Mundy, the battalion commander at Camp Gannon and the nearby town of Qaim. “It took a lot of time and effort to plan that attack, but it is not something that they can sustain.”

Such attacks have resulted in few American casualties, a fact that has not been lost on insurgent detainees, said Capt. Tom Sibley, the battalion’s intelligence officer.

“Many of these guys have been disillusioned,” Sibley said. “Our detainees throughout this area tell us that.” He said many detained Iraqi insurgents in Al Anbar province tell interrogators that they are tired of fighting.

“A lot of them come from families where one or two of their brothers has been detained or killed,” Sibley said. “Many of them used to have legitimate day jobs; they’re trying to carry on with their regular lives and at the same time carry on the insurgency. They have wives ... children who miss them.”

But on the other hand, hard-core insurgents are pressuring them to continue fighting, Sibley said.

“The Al Qaeda guys kill these people if they don’t cooperate,” Sibley said. “They don’t treat them well.”

The Marines at Camp Gannon acknowledge that many residents of Husaybah are caught in the middle, watching both sides to see who has the most staying power. Diorio said the Marines planned to remain there until Iraqi security forces were established there later in the year.

In the meantime, the Marines conduct occasional “observation post” operations in which a small group quietly commandeers a residence in the town and stays overnight to pick up intelligence. These operations are rare because of the risks involved, both for the Marines and the people they contact.

Lance Cpl. Karl Smithson, 22, participated in one such operation recently. Traveling before dawn, the team members stealthily made their way to an Iraqi family’s home and shut themselves inside for 24 hours.

“I guess they kind of feared us,” Smithson said.

After a few tense moments, one of the women who lived there acknowledged that she spoke some English. She served some of the men food and tea, and Smithson said the Marines disabused her of the notion that U.S. troops were initiated into the military by killing one of their parents.

Smithson said he also got the feeling that the residents didn’t like the insurgents very much, either, though they were afraid to speak of them.

“I would have liked to communicate with them longer,” he said. “But we’re just in the wild west out here. And I know right when we leave, everything will go back to where it was.”

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