Marines Wrap Up Assault in West Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Marines concluded their offensive into insurgent strongholds in western Iraq on Saturday, saying they had pushed guerrillas out of villages and towns where they had become entrenched but acknowledging that many of the fighters had escaped.

Marine officials said Operation Matador, among the largest military deployments since last year’s battle against insurgents in Fallouja, had disrupted the guerrillas’ capacity to coordinate attacks elsewhere in Iraq.

They also said the assault sent a clear message that the U.S. military would brook no insurgent havens in Iraq, even in the remote badlands of Al Anbar province along the border with Syria.


But Marines expressed regret that they had not captured more insurgents and said they had no illusions that the guerrillas would not soon return.

“We got brought here to catch lots of insurgents. That’s what we thought we were here for,” said Maj. Kei Braun, executive officer of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, which took part in the offensive. “But as it turned out, it didn’t quite work out that way.”

Nine Marines were killed and 40 were injured in their weeklong westward sweep. By Marine estimates, they killed at least 125 insurgents and detained 39 suspects for questioning.

Military officials had intelligence that the Ramana region, a string of small farming towns near the Syrian border north of the Euphrates River, was being used by insurgents as a training ground, staging area and transit point for foreign fighters.

But delays on the first day of the assault, when U.S. Army bridge builders failed to span the Euphrates River and an attack on U.S. forces left three Americans dead, allowed many of the insurgents in Ramana to escape into Syria, Marine officers said.

They also expressed regret at not guarding border escape routes better.

“We didn’t find as many insurgents as we wanted to,” said Lt. Col. Timothy S. Mundy, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Regiment, which led the attack. “But we pushed a lot of them out of the Ramana area. I think the Marines did great. We still accomplished the purpose of getting them to run in front of us and proving that they don’t have any safe havens.”

Marines conducted hundreds of house-to-house searches in small riverside villages and found an unspecified number of illegal firearms and bombs, officials said. On Saturday alone, Marines found six improvised explosive devices, among them a large bomb similar to one that destroyed an armored amphibious personnel carrier Wednesday, killing five Marines and wounding 10 others.

The Marines also staged 20 airstrikes, using Cobra attack helicopters and F/A-18 Hornets against suspected car bombs and insurgent hide-outs.

In many towns, residents appeared relieved to see the insurgents go and the Americans enter. Some pleaded for U.S. troops to stay or to send Iraqi security forces to keep the rebels from returning, a prospect that doesn’t appear likely until the end of the year.

Marine commanders said that they were surprised by how welcoming residents were to the troops and said that it boded well for intelligence gathering in the area.

Difficulties, however, cropped up on the morning of May 8, as U.S. soldiers struggled to finish a bridge over the Euphrates River that was necessary for the military’s heavy armored vehicles to cross into Ramana.

A job that was supposed to take eight hours took three times that long.

During that time, insurgents in New Ubaydi fired mortar rounds and small arms at troops at the bridge, pelting armor-plated Humvees and amphibious vehicles.

“We did not expect the people there to fire on us,” said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Starling, the operations officer for Regimental Combat Team 2.

Starling said previous visits by military civil affairs officials had yielded no signs of insurgent activity in the town.

“That said, Marines reacted instantaneously and effectively.”

Marines rushed into the town and found that insurgents were well prepared to fight a close, urban battle. They had cut rifle ports in the walls of some homes, stacked sandbags around others and installed floor grates so they could ambush U.S. troops from basement bunkers.

American ground troops, tanks and Cobra helicopters pounded insurgent positions.

Once they had cleared nearly half of New Ubaydi, Marines withdrew to concentrate on their main objective: the Ramana area north of the Euphrates. By that time, however, Marine commanders had already made a critical decision; they pulled out a platoon that was guarding key escape routes to Syria to reinforce forces protecting the bridge.

Starling said that he had to weigh the risks of leaving the border routes unguarded against the possibility that insurgents might try to prevent the Army from building the river bridge. He decided the bridge was more important.

That gave insurgents a few hours to escape, and they took the opportunity, according to residents throughout the region who reported seeing them flee across the border.

“Removing that blocking position at that particular time is something that in retrospect I might have handled a little bit differently,” Starling said.

Marines soon returned to positions on cliffs near the Syrian border, but it was probably too late, he said.

Still, Starling said, the offensive had met its main objectives.

“We shattered the cohesion of their terrorist cells and their ability to operate in the Ramana area,” Starling said.

“The terrorists were either killed, captured or had to flee.”

Marine officials said that Operation Matador might mark a turning point for similar large military campaigns in Iraq. Increasingly, politicians in the United States and Iraq are calling on Iraqi troops to be used more frequently for such operations.

An Iraqi platoon that has been training at the Al Asad Marine base was on vacation during the week of the Marine assault and did not participate. And at this time, there aren’t enough trained Iraqi forces to effectively police Al Anbar province.

“I would predict that western Iraq will be one of the last places in Iraq to achieve true security and stability,” Starling said. “Iraqi security forces are currently concentrated in places like Baghdad and Mosul.”