Under fire, US marines hand off battered Fallujah

Just 300 marines now patrol key Sunni city as Iraqi military takes over.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

From Observation Post Blazer, marines view Fallujah through a thick sheet of bullet-proof glass – already tested with numerous impacts. Or they stare through night-vision goggles or a thermal imaging scope that can pick up the heat of a dog hundreds of yards away.

The marines still patrol key roads. The US military, which still travels boldly through town despite a surge in deadly sniper attacks and roadside bombs, is spending $200 million on 60-plus projects to rebuild the city, heavily damaged in fighting two years ago.

But with just 300 marines, the US military footprint is smaller in this Sunni stronghold of more than 300,000 than it has been in two years. As the marine presence shrinks and Iraqis take more control, Fallujah – once a template for counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, where US forces have controlled all the variables – is likely again to set a standard for the rest of the country.

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"A lot of us feel like we have our hands tied behind our back," says Cpl. Peter Mattice, of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment. "In Fallujah, [insurgents] know our [rules of engagement] – they know when to stop, just before we engage."

During this transition, frustration runs deep in this fortified bunker, and at a handful of posts that now dot Fallujah. They are designed to watch the main roads where marines travel, to prevent the laying of roadside bombs.

Here echo the conclusions of a report written by the chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in August, and first described by The Washington Post, which determined that there is little the military now can do to improve prospects in insurgent-riddled Anbar Province, which includes Fallujah.

"They say we are here to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, but I just don't see that happening," says Corporal Mattice, of Gladwin, Mich. OP Blazer is perched on the northern edge of the city, looking due south down a main street known to the marines as Ethan, site of numerous roadside bombs.

"As soon as we leave, I'm afraid that the insurgents will take over.... They watch us, as we watch them," says Mattice, echoing the fears of Fallujans who, while unhappy with the marine presence, are far more worried that a hurried US departure will leave them vulnerable to Sunni militants, and exposed to sectarian killings.

That fear has been fueled by a spike in insurgent attacks since summer, against both Iraqis and US troops. The 1/24 Marines, a reserve unit headquartered in Detroit and recently arrived, suffered nine dead and more than 40 seriously wounded in their first month in Iraq. Another marine died Sunday from a roadside bomb.

Since August, an assassination and intimidation campaign here has also killed the head of the city council and another prominent member; numerous policemen – including the deputy police chief – and contractors and workers on US-funded projects have also been murdered.

The numbers underscore the dilemma for marines in Fallujah, and for US troops across Iraq, as they begin to pull back and hand more responsibility to Iraqi forces.

The 300 marines here are attacked five to eight times each day. That presence is a significant drop from the 3,000 marines posted here in March 2005, and the 10,000 that took part in the late 2004 invasion.

Another metric: Officers say the number of direct fire incidents against US forces has shot up 650 percent in the past year. Three marines had been hit by snipers in one 48-hour span earlier this week.

"It is no secret," Col. Lawrence Nicholson told the Fallujah City Council during their regular Tuesday meeting. "My mission is to do less, every single day, as Iraqi forces do more."

Fallujah was the test case counter-insurgency invasion in November 2004 – effectively destroying the city to root out insurgents in the biggest urban battle for US marines since Hue City in Vietnam in 1968. Fallujah later became the model for a "go and stay" strategy attempted in cities along the Euphrates in the fall of 2005, which the August intelligence report found to have failed.

Senior officers now refer to Fallujah as a "gated community" – putting a deft gloss on the fact that Fallujah has for two years had only six entry points, and entering Iraqi residents still require US-issued biometric cards with retinal scans and fingerprints on file.

But among those Iraqi residents are 150 newcomers a week, fleeing the sectarian violence in Baghdad to a known "Sunni safe haven," in the words of one officer. Others say hundreds of highly trained insurgents, Iraqis from outside Fallujah, have also recently moved in to step up attacks.

"Fallujah has an iconic value to the Marine Corps," says Colonel Nicholson, commander of the Regimental Combat Team 5, which covers Fallujah and a populated swath of Anbar Province, in an interview. "Fallujah falling [to insurgents] would be like Iwo Jima falling to the Japanese again after World War II – it would be intolerable."

Preventing that from happening is a top priority for the Bravo and Charlie companies of the 1/24 that are now in Fallujah. But local Iraqis know the territory better than US forces ever will.

"The insurgents are creative and have advantages," says Maj. Jeffrey O'Neill, the Bravo Company commander from Novi, Mich. "If the Chinese invaded your [American] neighborhood, you would know where to hide, which dumpster behind the 7-11 to stash things. If we don't catch them red-handed, they will probably be on the street again."

Many prisoners were released by the Iraqi government in August amnesties, notes Major O'Neill, and the rules are changing: Even if someone is found with a sack full of washing machine timers that could be used to trigger bombs, unless explosives and a black mask are found too, it may not be enough for an arrest.

The insurgents are also proving agile. On Monday, for example, elements of two US battalions – the 1/24 and 2/6 – staged "Operation Talon," which swept a series of garages and rural areas a few miles north of Fallujah. As many as seven cells were thought to work from the area, using it as a staging post for attacks on the city.

A round-up of everybody in the area–776 men – netted just 13 detainees after full processing, and none were considered high-value targets. But two Shiite hostages were found and released; they had been told by their Sunni captors they would be executed later that same day. Some small weapons caches were also found, and several thousand ball bearings, along with steel plate apparently used to test their armor penetration in home-made mines.

"I don't think [insurgents] have succeeded as much as they would like, but they gave it all they had before the US election to influence people," says Maj. Christopher Kolomjec from Grosse Pointe, Mich. "It is hard for us to know the real support [of the US] of the Fallujah people, because if they are seen to support us, they will have their head cut off tomorrow."

"Each precinct in Chicago or Detroit, makes 100 to 150 arrests per night per 300,000 people," says Major Kolomjec, a lawyer who notes that Fallujah's population is similar. "Here you take 12 to 40 people per day, and people are up in arms. You can't expect stability, when you are not even doing the same level of policing as Detroit."

Another source of frustration: Pursuit in mosques is forbidden without the presence of Iraqi Army units. Marines say some of Fallujah's 76 mosques are used to hide weaponry. Some broadcast messages such as, "God help us defeat the Americans."

"Many would ask: What other war would we allow the enemy to broadcast calls for our defeat, for the sake of cultural sensitivity?" says O'Neill.

But even as insurgents step up the violence, marines make themselves harder-to-hit targets.

"No, it's not worth it," says 1st Sgt Andrew Tomelleri, of Kansas City, when news came of the death and injuries from another roadside bomb. The three-time Iraq veteran had been at the exact location a day earlier. Such patrols are seen as "magnets" for IEDs.

"But it would be [worth it], if we could fight them muzzle to muzzle, man to man," says Sergeant Tomelleri. "They know they can't beat us that way."

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