Next job: keeping rebels out
Marines took New Obeidi, a village in western Iraq, in Operation Steel Curtain.
NEW OBEIDI, IRAQ — "Get back, get back!" shouted Cpl. Sean Thompson after poking at the suspicious mound of rocks during a marine patrol to look for insurgents' improvised explosive devices.
"Daisy chain, daisy chain here, don't nobody go off the road!"
Thanks to the corporal from Seminole, Fla., the "daisy chain," explosives linked together, never went off.
But they illustrate the difficulty of keeping insurgents permanently out of New Obeidi and the other towns in Anbar Province, along the Syrian border. Marines of the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Regiment have fought to wrest control of these towns from insurgents over the past three weeks in Operation Steel Curtain.
This region of Iraq is home to supply lines, incoming foreign fighters, and insurgent bases. Throughout Steel Curtain, insurgents have typically resisted then melted away rather than confront the Marines' fire power. At least 11 marines have been killed since the operation began.
More than 100 insurgents have been killed and several hundred have been arrested.
Resting in the bend of the Euphrates River, New Obeidi, located next to Obeidi, is a microcosm of the challenges and pitfalls of the broader fight against insurgents. It was the last city taken by the marines in Steel Curtain. Fighting ended last Thursday, and the battle has turned to ensuring that insurgents don't return.
A day after the bullets stopped flying here, marines began 24-hour foot patrols through the streets. Residents come forward to point out weapon stockpiles by day while insurgents plant IEDs by night. Children wave and some men shake hands with the marines. Others hang back offering only hard stares.
"These guys smile and shake your hand today, but you kill one of their brethren ... you make your own enemies if you're not careful," says Sgt. Antonio Farmer, of Wilson, N.C., as he walks through a dusty field. "It's hard to know when to turn it on and to turn it off, the aggression."
The scars of the battle are all around him and makeshift white flags fly from rooftops, car windows, and residents' hands as they walk the streets.
As the patrol makes it way through the grid of streets in this community that was planned around a fertilizerfactory, residents emerge to watch, and children cautiously test the playfulness of the marines.
The marines have been told by their commanders that a positive climate here is essential to keep insurgents away.
One marine approaches a man standing alone and offers a handshake, but the man pulls his hand away, offering instead a stern nod of acknowledgement. At the next house a group of men and boys wave. "Good, good!" they shout.
"The situation is very miserable. All the people in this city spent [three or four nights] outside the city," says Abu Abdullah, a political science professor, in rusty English. He refuses to give his full name. "All this destruction and death came under the slogan of democracy. Is this democracy? Is this a civilization? Is this freedom?"
But on the same street where Abdullah stands, three men are trying to get the marines' attention to show them where two IEDs were hidden in the garden of a home.
"I'd hate to shoot one of these kids in the head.... You do what you can because the enemy blends in. [It's a case of] 'no better friend and no better enemy,' because you never really know who" you are dealing with, Farmer says.
The majority of the people on the street just want to know if the Marines will compensate them for their damaged homes and cars.
So many have questions that it takes two hours for the marines to walk just a few blocks. "We want to have a good relationship with them [so] that if we see anything they will tell us. The only way to have that is to get their trust, and the only way to do that is [reconstruction]," says Sgt. Ryan Ashabranner, of Cypress, Texas, on a different patrol.
During these first patrols around the city following the fighting, the marines are charged with the painstaking work of sweeping each street for IEDs in the road and weapons left behind by insurgents.
The rebuilding and humanitarian work will be done by other marines who are just setting up such programs. But without an interpreter and few answers to questions, marines like Farmer and Ashabranner are left to hand gestures and whatever English the residents may know to communicate.
"Boom? Boom?" they often ask while making an explosion gesture with their hands to ask residents if they know where any weapons or IEDs are.
Many of the marines in the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Regiment are familiar with this side of fighting the insurgency. Roughly half of them served in Afghanistan.
"We know you have to get out and in touch with the people. Just driving by, everyone waves, but that doesn't do anything. Being in Afghanistan they learned they had to get out and interact with the people. It's the only way this thing is going to get won," says Capt. Clinton Culp of Amarillo, Texas, the commander of the weapons company that is overseeing the New Obeidi area.
That presence pays dividends. After walking the street for a few days, Farmer judges the remaining insurgent influence by the way the children react to them on a given street.
"Some places the kids will play with you, make fun of you 'big bad American soldiers.' But go to other places and it's different. They shy away from you," says Farmer. "Atmospherics are going to be a big part of success in this town."