HUSAYBAH, IRAQ: Thursday morning started off with strikes at undisclosed locations near the Syrian border against unknown targets. Bombs and gunfire rained from the sky in the early hours during darkness. No information is available about the results of the attack.
I took a trip to Battle Position Hue City for a meeting between the tribal sheikhs of the al-Qaim region, which stretches from Ubaydi to Husaybah. Hue City hosts a Civil Military Operations Center, or CMOC in military parlance, whose purpose is to provide assistance to the residents of Husaybah. The CMOC also serves as a meeting place between the military and civilian representatives.
In attendance at today’s meeting were Colonel Razak, the Commander of the Iraqi regiment operating in western Iraq, Lieutenant Colonel Dale Alford, the Commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, the mayor pro temp of Husaybah, and the leaders of the tribes of the Albu Malha, Ubaydis, Sulemani, Karabilah and Albu Jagfar. This is the second such meeting of the tribes and the military.
Today’s meeting was the first attended by the Sulemani, the tribe which sided with al-Qaeda and the insurgency over the summer. The meeting I attended last Monday with Lieutenant Oren and the tribal sheikhs was the first face to face contact with the Sulemani and the U.S. Military, and facilitated their attendance at today’s meeting.
Col Razak chaired the meeting, and was a commanding presence. He stressed the importance of Iraqis being in control and “not allowing any stranger to come here… Terrorists come to this town specifically to use you and the people, and only harm innocent people.” One of the greatest fears of the residents of the region is the premature withdrawal of U.S. and Iraqi forces.
But the locations of the Battle Positions in the Al Qaim region is also a matter of concern. The bases often lie on main roads, near mosques or marketplaces, and the residents are inconvenienced by their locations as travel is often restricted due to the checkpoints. LtCol Alford stressed the importance of the residents of the region and the tribal sheikhs taking responsibility for local security, so the bases can be dismantled in the future. “This will not happen overnight… you must build your government up, establish a police force” before the military units move out, said LtCol Alford. “I believe the first group to leave will be U.S. Forces, then the Iraqi Army. But this will not happen without your help.”
The other concerns voiced by the tribal sheihks included repairing a transformer, installing a permanent mayor, resolving a dispute between the pro-government Albu Malha tribe and the Sulemani, and the opening of schools. LtCol Alford again stressed the issue of personal responsibility, and implored the sheikhs to make efforts to open schools using any means possible, while the Civil Affairs Group would immediately provide the supplies needed to run classrooms and would repair damaged schools in the future.
The meeting ended with handshakes between the sheikhs, and Col Razak and LtCol Alford. Various ad hoc side meetings broke out between the sheikhs, members of the Iraqi military and members of the Civil Affairs group.
After the meeting, intelligence received a report of a possible weapons cache in a bombed out house on a rural farm right on the Euphrates River, just north of Husaybah. Staff Sergeant Strong was able to work me into the mission, and I mounted up with a squad from the Weapons Platoon of Lima Company, and a squad of Iraqi troops. We rode through the heart of Husaybah, along the teaming market street, then down a dusty dirt road that ran parallel to the Syrian border, which was about 300 yards west. The line of concertina wire separating Iraq and Syria was clearly visible in the distance.
The U.S. Marines and Iraqi troops turned down a dirt road lined with primitive farming homes, which surprisingly had power and satellite dishes. Scores of children were there to greet us. The Marines and soldiers quickly dismounted to provide security. I asked SSgt Strong his opinion of the Iraqi troops. “This is the best we’ve had. Note how they dismounted quickly and took perimeter security” he said, noting it was done without prompting from the Marines. He is optimistic about their prospects.
Icy, the interpreter from 1st Platoon, joined this mission, and as always jumped right into the fray. He found the corner where the shells were buried, searched for any triggering devices and wires, and personally dug up the cache and pulled out the rounds with his bare hands with the assistance of the Iraqi soldiers. The terp is fearless.
The find was small, 8 rounds total, including one 155mm and six 120mm artillery shells, and one 120mm mortar round. SSgt Strong pointed out the markings on the inside and outside walls that provided clues of the cache. The Iraqi Army soldiers said these rounds were from Iraq, but that often al-Qaeda pays people to smuggle weapons across the border from Syria.
The small weapons cache.
Iraqi Troops and the Cache of Weapons.
The Iraqi troops enthusiastically shouldered the rounds and placed them on their truck. As we prepared to leave, the Iraqi children gathered and begged for food, candy and money. A Marine handed out some MREs and other items, and the children were ecstatic. I asked to take their picture, then waded into the crowd to show them the results, much to their delight.
The Neighborhood Kids.
We mounted up and drove to an empty field about 100 yards from the Syrian border, and engineers arrived to rig the rounds to explode. Our Humvee drove off about 600 yards to block the road and prevent Iraqis heading to the market from getting hurt. Good thing, the explosion sent one of the rounds in our direction. It clanged off a metal telephone pole and landed about ten yards from the Hummer.
We returned to Hue City, and I caught a convoy to Camp al-Qaim. The convoy was quite large, as we stopped at Battle Position Tarawa to pick up more vehicles heading to camp. We snaked along the river road through Husaybah, Karabilah and crossed the “Emerald Wadi”, named for the green vegetation growing in the dry riverbed, into Sadah, before heading south into the desert. An uneventful ride of one hour in a region where, according to the driver, a drive from Husaybah to Camp al-Qaim took six hours not that long ago due to security problems on the road.