In Fallujah's wake, marines go west

US and Iraqi forces have launched Operation River Blitz, targeting insurgents in cities along the Euphrates.

After five hours of shivering quietly in the desert outside Hit, where sulphur seeps from the ground and almost nothing grows, Bravo Company marines got the word - "good to go" - and began to creep into the sleeping city.

They were primed for strong resistance. But the marines of the First Battalion of the 23rd Regiment entered Hit (pronounced Heat) almost unopposed and filtered toward the neighborhood around the Mubarak mosque at 2 a.m., kicking down doors of homes in search of weapons and setting up a command post to coordinate operations to clear out the city's fighters.

Three weeks after Iraq's elections, US forces are still leading the fight in Anbar, the most dangerous of the country's 18 provinces. Marines have launched operations in at least three other provincial cities in operation "River Blitz."

Targeting hardscrabble cities like Hit, Ramadi, and Baghdadi, they are looking for foreign insurgent fighters and known insurgent hotbeds. But resistance has been light, far different from the November assault on Fallujah where dug-in mujahideen fought pitched battles with marines and died in the hundreds.

While that has been welcome news to the grunts of Bravo, a group of reservists primarily from Texas and Louisiana who have fought their way up and down the Euphrates since August, it appears to represent a shift in insurgent tactics.

Rather than standing and fighting, insurgents are melting away when troops move in. And they are focusing more intently on the emerging Iraqi government and its security forces. The hope, it seems, is that US forces won't stay long enough to develop the intelligence to root out insurgents systematically.

"There are some hard-core fighters in Hit but we can hold it easily for as long as we are here," says Maj. Mike Miller, the company commander and a policeman from San Antonio, Tex. "But we can't make any promises beyond when we leave. So I can understand that locals are reluctant to get involved."

"I guarantee you they'll be back in here when we leave," says Sgt. Shawn Hudman, who lives in Austin, Texas. "Maybe at least as we go on, there'll be fewer and fewer places for them to go."

The US effort, which flows from the November assault on Fallujah, is designed to restore some government control over the town of Anbar. Until now, Anbar has provided safe ground for insurgents, with the roads and trails along the Euphrates River serving as "rat-lines" for men and weapons to move around the country.

Many of these towns, like Hit, have centuries-old traditions of banditry and smuggling. They are also among the most severe practitioners of Sunni Islam in the country, thanks to the river which has provided a corridor for strict Saudi Arabian ideas to move into the country.

"We think the assault on Fallujah pushed a lot of fighters and leaders out of there, squeezed them west along the Euphrates," says Lieut. Col. Steven Dinauer of Verona, Wisc. "This city is not another Fallujah, but we know there are mujahideen in there, so we're going to keep them back on their heels and disrupt their lines of communication."

Major combat is still a possibility, with marines moving systematically through the cities and planning raids. Unmanned drones, their engines buzzing like lawn mowers, regularly scan the city's warren of alleys.

One of the first things the marines did was to round up and detain police officers. Hit's police force, as in most of the province's towns, appears to be completely compromised by the insurgents.

The last time Bravo company was here, in October, the "muj" had taken over the town council and the local police station without resistance. They killed locals whom they accused of supporting the new government and the US.

After the marines fought for two days around a key bridge and nearby palm groves, the town was secured. Some fighters were found in stolen police uniforms. The marines stayed four days more and then headed for Fallujah.

They felt they'd accomplished something with the "six days of Hit," as they call it. But when they left, despite repeated assurances from local sheikhs that there would be no more problems, the insurgents reasserted themselves.

"The concentration of forces for Fallujah manifested itself by allowing the enemy a little more wiggle room out here," says Colonel Dinauer. "Now we are going to ride that fine line ... where we don't spoil the goodwill that's here among many of the people, while still having enough force so if the enemy decides to fight we can kill them."

In Hit, marines are planning to fight all three blocks of what military doctrine calls the three-block war. The third block is the straight-out fighting of Fallujah. The second is security operations, like those carried out in Hit so far. And the third is humanitarian assistance and community outreach.

That means that in addition to their regular complement of tanks, mortars, and grenades, the marines have headed in with a marine lawyer, $20,000 to pay for any damage, and dozens of soccer balls.

The marines have also come in with about 20 members of an Iraqi special forces unit called the Freedom Fighters. Unlike local Iraqi guard units, who are usually unwilling to fight, the freedom fighters are Shiites from the southern city of Basra, where uprisings against Saddam Hussein's regime were put down with the wholesale slaughter of civilians. There's little love between them and the Sunni Arab citizens of Anbar.

On this night in Hit, the marines found some of what they came in search of: two large weapons caches - including 115 mortar rounds and a couple of World War II-vintage 200-lb bombs - buried in lots next to houses. Intelligence came from surprising places: after a father wasn't helpful, the son pointed to the caches after being offered a $20 bill.

But at about 5 a.m. Tuesday, Bravo company got a taste of the dangers that still lurk here. A sedan turned onto the street in front of the schoolhouse they'd occupied and began speeding toward the Abrams tank the marines were using to seal off the road. The machine-gunner opened up on the car and hit the driver, a Syrian national, at least three times.

A few moments later, another man who'd been in the car made for the trunk. He, too, was shot dead.

The car was loaded with rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds, and a mortar tube. The marines think the men were trying to make it out of the city.

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