The U.S. military's plan to pacify Iraq has run into trouble in a place where it urgently needs to succeed.
U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad agree that Al Anbar province -- the vast desert badlands stretching west from the cities of Fallouja and Ramadi to the lawless region abutting the Syrian border -- remains the epicenter of the country's deadly insurgency.
Yet U.S. troops and military officials in the embattled province said in recent interviews that they have neither enough combat power nor enough Iraqi military support to mount an effective counterinsurgency against an increasingly sophisticated enemy.
"You can't get all the Marines and train them on a single objective, because usually the objective is bigger than you are," said Maj. Mark Lister, a senior Marine air officer in Al Anbar province. "Basically, we've got all the toys, but not enough boys."
The Pentagon has made training Iraqi troops its top priority since Iraq's national election in late January. But in Al Anbar province, that objective is overshadowed by the more basic mission of trying to keep much of the region out of insurgent hands.
Just three battalions of Marines are stationed in the western part of the province, down from four a few months ago. Marine officials in western Al Anbar say that each of those battalions is smaller by one company than last year, meaning there are approximately 2,100 Marines there now, compared with about 3,600 last year.
Some U.S. military officers in Al Anbar province say that commanders in Baghdad and the Pentagon have denied their repeated requests for more troops.
"[Commanders] can't use the word, but we're withdrawing," said one U.S. military official in Al Anbar province, who asked not to be identified because it is the Pentagon that usually speaks publicly about troop levels. "Slowly, that's what we're doing."
Such reductions are especially problematic because U.S. commanders have determined that it is the western part of the province to which the insurgency's "center of resistance" has shifted. The insurgency's base of operations was once the eastern corridor between Fallouja and Ramadi. Now, Pentagon officials say, it is in villages and cities closer to the Syrian border.
Commanders also believe the insurgency is now made up of a larger percentage of foreign jihadists than the U.S. military previously believed, an indication that there are not enough U.S. and Iraqi troops to patrol miles of desert border.
Some Pentagon officials and experts in counterinsurgency warfare say the troop shortage has hamstrung the U.S. military's ability to effectively fight Iraqi insurgents.
This was evident during this month's Operation Matador, the U.S. offensive near the Syrian border designed to stem the flow of foreign fighters and their weapons into Iraq. For seven days, Marines rumbled through desert villages and fought pitched battles against a surprisingly well-coordinated enemy.
On the first day of the operation, insurgents appeared to be willing to stand their ground and fight the Marines, but U.S. military officials now believe that may have been a tactic to delay U.S. troops from crossing into the Ramana region north of the Euphrates River. This delay, officials said, could have given many of the insurgents time to escape into Syria.
"It's an extremely frustrating fight," said Maj. Steve White, operations director for the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment. "Fighting these guys is like picking up water. You're going to lose some every time."
A military news release declared the mission a success, saying that U.S. troops had killed more than 125 insurgents. Nine Marines were killed and 40 were wounded during the operation.
Yet as soon as the operation concluded, the Marines crossed back over the Euphrates River and left no U.S. or Iraqi government presence in the region -- generally considered a major mistake in counterinsurgency warfare.
"It's classically the wrong thing to do," said Kalev Sepp, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who last fall was a counterinsurgency advisor to Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq. "Sending 1,000 men north of the Euphrates does what? Sometimes these things can be counterproductive, because you just end up shooting things up and then leaving the area."
Military officials in Iraq and Washington said there was little reason to expect that insurgent fighters would not return to the villages.
"The right thing to do would have been to sweep the area with U.S. troops, and hold it with Iraqi troops," said a military official and counterinsurgency expert at the Pentagon who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not an official Pentagon spokesman.
Yet, there were no Iraqi troops to leave in the area. Just one platoon of Iraqi troops is stationed in the far west Al Anbar province, garrisoned at a phosphate plant in the town of Qaim. But those troops were on leave during the week of Operation Matador, taking their paychecks home to their families.
Lt. Col. Christopher Starling, operations officer for the 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team, said the slow pace at which Iraqi troops were being trained in Al Anbar province meant that the province could be among the last areas in Iraq to put a substantial number of trained Iraqi troops in the field.
The shortage of Iraqi troops in Al Anbar is due largely to a deadly intimidation campaign by insurgents. Iraqi trainees and recruits have been killed en masse in shootings and suicide bombings. Consequently, U.S. and Iraqi commanders have been forced to rely largely on Shiite troops to patrol the Sunni-dominated province.
Iraqi troops could be particularly effective in helping U.S. troops gain a better understanding of the tribal divisions in Al Anbar province. Some U.S. commanders in Al Anbar have expressed frustration that they have not capitalized on recent armed conflicts between insurgent groups.
Earlier this year, Marines began receiving intelligence about insurgent groups and clans in the area who were fighting foreign militants in towns along the Syrian border.
In the days before Operation Matador, Marines posted on the outskirts of Husaybah reported a series of cross-town mortar attacks by opposing insurgent factions.
Al Anbar province "is a region that is in turmoil and, in some regards, in conflict with itself," said Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, who twice since the war in Iraq began has been the top U.S. commander in Al Anbar and who now is director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Staff.
U.S. commanders believe they are in a Catch-22: Defeating the insurgency depends on flooding towns and cities with hundreds of reconstruction projects. Yet the persistent insurgent attacks against U.S. troops and civilians, especially in Al Anbar province, prevent reconstruction projects from getting started.
"There are areas where there is relatively little reconstruction because of insurgent activity. You go out to Al Anbar province, for example. It's pretty grim out there in terms of what has been done versus what could be done," Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, said last week.
U.S. and Iraqi military leaders view Al Anbar province as the insurgency's supply line. Insurgents freely cross the long, unguarded border with Syria and have taken over a string of small villages along the Euphrates River to stage guerrilla attacks in cities to the east like Ramadi, Mosul and Baghdad.
U.S. military officers in Al Anbar province say that Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi has been sighted in towns that U.S. forces have not visited for as many as six months.
As a spate of deadly car bombings continues throughout Iraq, U.S. officials now believe it is the foreign jihadists -- who military officials believe are more likely than former Saddam Hussein loyalists to carry out suicide attacks -- who pose the most significant threat to the stability of the new Iraqi government.
"I really want to believe that we are making great progress right now," said the counterinsurgency expert at the Pentagon. "What's killing us right now, literally and figuratively, is the foreign fighters. We just need to catch a few breaks."
At the same time, the official said he expected it would take years to finish the job.
"If we can win this thing in six years, we're setting new land speed records," he said.
During Operation Matador, U.S. troops were surprised to find a large insurgent presence in towns south of the Euphrates in western Al Anbar, such as Ubaydi, where the heaviest fighting of the operation took place.
That the Marines were unaware that there were so many insurgents in that city after having dispatched numerous civil affairs missions there indicates the complexity of the region as well as the military's limited knowledge of the area.
"We're here and they're there," said Maj. Todd Waldemar, head of civil affairs for the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, a reserve unit stationed at the Haditha Dam in Al Anbar. "We kind of walk around in a security bubble, so to speak, that makes it kind of hard for us to figure out exactly what's going on."
Mazzetti reported from Washington and Moore from Al Anbar province.