For marines on raids, an eerie silence
HASWAH AND MUSAYYIB, IRAQ
In the shadow of night, on the edge of the volatile town of Haswah, a convoy of humvees silently pulls to a stop and disgorges its marines.Skip to next paragraph
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In the wake of daytime raids Wednesday, in which 200 US troops cordoned off the town and 100 Iraqi special forces arrested 17 men, the marines of Operation Phantom Fury, which began this week, expected resistance.
They had never been here, some 30 miles south of Baghdad, and not been engaged by insurgents. And they had never planned such deep penetration, striding behind storefronts to the narrow, dusty streets behind.
But instead of a firefight, they stepped into a surreal silence.
"I don't believe this - aren't there supposed to be people in the streets at 11 at night? Drinking tea?" asked one marine emerging from a side street in full combat gear, threatened by nothing more than clusters of wild dogs.
"I've never seen it before - not a soul," says 2nd Lt. Mark Nicholson, a platoon commander of the 1st Battalion 2nd Marines, from Wheeling, W.Va. Previous visits at even 2 a.m. found people on the street - and always an armed reaction.
"It's a good thing," says Lieutenant Nicholson. "But I'd like to see people in the streets, people who want us there, who greet us."
The apparently lifeless town, a chronic hotbed of insurgent activity, may typify what control can be achieved in Iraq with joint US-Iraqi forces. But as marines prepare to return to Haswah and other insurgent strongholds day after day, officers say the calm may be misleading, and tough to maintain.
"We can't be at every location, 24 hours a day," says Capt. Chris Ray, an intelligence officer. "[Insurgents] know they can just drop their AK-47s and blend into the crowd, if nobody points their finger at them."
"Our biggest problem right now is overcoming the intimidation that [insurgents] have working all the time," says Captain Ray, from Tolland, Conn. "They're here all the time, they know where everybody lives. In the past, [after an big arrest operation], for 24 hours it will calm down. Then they will actually pick up operations, to send the message: 'We control this town.' "
"We've seen it in every town," Ray says. "After we leave, there are more reports of people forcing shop owners to close, or stay off the streets. They're doing well with psychological operations."
Iraqi forces are meant increasingly to pick up the slack, and take permanent control of hotspots like Haswah. The arrests Wednesday, in fact, were prompted by Iraqi forces. "The Iraqi police called us, saying 'We got some people we know are bad, we're going to come get them," says Maj. Matt Sasse, chief of operations for the 1-2 Marines.
"We're perfectly willing to go out andkill these guys, but it's better if the Iraqi forces are going to deal with it on their own," says Major Sasse, from Midland, Mich. He notes that the 17 detainees were taken to the Iraqi jail at Hilla. "They're getting progressively better, and every time they have a successful operation, they get a bit more aggressive."