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.
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.
When the Marines began patrolling, they came across up to five roadside bombs a day. In mid-September, they suffered 25 wounded in a single 24-hour period. So they set up a base and capturedthe gear of an insurgent mortar team and a GPS unit that led them to two large weapons caches. The result: Discovering eight more mortar set-ups, 800 pounds of high explosives, and a couple thousand feet of detonation cord.
"Since then, it's gotten a lot better," says Sasse, from Midland, Mich., adding that, from that time he has seen only two roadside bombs. "We haven't been mortared from the west of the city since that day."
"A lot of 'em want nothing more than to get rid of us," says Capt. Lance Lewis, a forward air controller for Bravo Company of the 1-2 Marines. When the Marines took over from the US Army's 1st Armored Division, the week was divided into Mortar Mondays, Rocket Tuesdays, and so on," says Captain Lewis.
One target early Tuesday was a portly sheikh living with his family in a house on the compound of a small Musayyib mosque. He was detained for "helping out the insurgents, stirring people up, giving the 'baddies' a safe haven," says Lewis.
The convoy of Marine vehicles - along with 12 Iraqis from the Hilla SWAT team, who wore masks to hide their identities - drove with lights blacked out and encircled the mosque compound. Taken by surprise, the man barely protested, as his wife, clad head to toe in the black abbayya favored by rural Iraqi women, sat stoically, surrounded by a handful of children.
Iraqis and marines searched the house thoroughly, going through closets, book shelves, and a back room piled high with the kind of junk families collect.
An Iraqi soldier carried one sleeping boy from the master bed to his mother, while Marines pulled back the mattress, to find several newspapers, and what appeared to be torn up papers that could have been grid coordinates, as some marines thought, or math geometry assignments. The living room, where another boy continued to sleep on the floor throughout the search, was lined with religious books and heaped with scores of cassette tapes, perhaps of the detained man's speeches. Marines boxed those up and took them away.
Marines found some large colored stickers, with a distinctly insurgent montage: They showed a map of Iraq with a skull and crossbones inside, a masked insurgent with weapons on top, and below, caskets draped with American flags going up in flames.
"I got anti-American propaganda in there," an intelligence officer reported to his superiors, after stepping outside. No weapons were found. Iraqi forces searched the mosque. US forces and a masked Iraqi Christian interpreter stayed back.
The methods of the insurgents have also been improving, in part because of the collusion of groups in this region, where marines say militants of all types have coalesced and taken advantage of the US focus on Fallujah and the Shiite city of Najaf.
"They use everything and anything. We've found stuff in haystacks, canals, in schools, and buried in the ground," says Captain Lewis. "Their imagination is the limit."