Latest front for US forces: rural Iraq
The US Marines and Iraqi forces launched an offensive south of Baghdad Tuesday, aimed at cutting insurgent "rat lines" that feed the capital with explosives, cash, and militants, and establishing control over broad swaths of hostile rural territory.Skip to next paragraph
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Operation Phantom Fury is a key element of a wider US-led rolling offensive to stamp out insurgent strongholds before January elections. Conducted in volatile and relatively unpatrolled rural areas, the operation - involving more than 3,000 troops, a quarter of them Iraqi units - may prove critical to solving Baghdad's security puzzle. Though overshadowed by urban insurgencies that have swept the Sunni triangle north and west of the capital, the bloodletting here has been extensive, and the transit route, commanders say, has been enhanced by anti-US feeling that is especially pronounced west of the Euphrates.
"This area is directly tied to the atmosphere in Baghdad, as far as security," says Maj. Matt Sasse, operations officer for the 1st Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment. "This is a highly trafficked area for [insurgents] to move car bombs, mortars and rockets to commit acts of terror."
Operation Phantom Fury began with dead-of-night raids early Tuesday to arrest four Iraqis suspected of harboring insurgents - at least two of them local sheikhs. At dawn and without resistance, armored units rolled up to the Jurf as-Sakhr bridge over the Euphrates - a chokepoint 18 miles from Baghdad that US officers say has become the main transit route from Fallujah and Ramadi to the capital.
In coming days, Marine units backed by Cobra helicopters, AC-130 Spectre gunships, and armored elements of the US Army's Stryker Brigade, are to deploy across this rich farmland, which has long been a rebel sanctuary.
The area has become notorious for a spate of kidnappings, mortar fire, and roadside bombs. Ten police officers were killed Tuesday in two cities in North Badil, this volatile province. And one Marine unit on patrol was ambushed in Haswah three hours before the first raids, wounding four Americans.
The attack at Haswah was the fourth in as many nights - an assault that was expected to be met with a strong Marine response late Tuesday.
"They're trying to keep the chaos going," says Col. Ron Johnson, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is responsible for this lush flatland. "This is the high water mark" for the insurgents, he says, because US and Iraqi capabilities are gradually improving.
"There are so many different players and actors, you just can't use the word 'insurgents,'" says Colonel Johnson, of Duxbury, Mass. "We just can't expect overnight results - just patience and persistence.... Over time, we'll catch up with these people."
Commanders say this operation will go after dozens of targets and last several days at least, to control an area long deemed to be a cauldron where Iraq's normally divided Sunni and Shiite factions find common cause against US forces.
On Major Sasse's first day at Iskandariyah base in mid-July, it was the target of 40 mortars in 10 minutes. The Army units here before rarely patrolled on the west side of the Euphrates, essentially handing it over to the insurgents.