Two weeks of intense combat in Iraq have created a number of outstanding situations that cannot continue indefinitely. The most well known is Fallujah, where 3 Marine battalions have stopped short of taking the town outright in favor of a kind of low-intensity conflict, called a truce, featuring negotiations that no one seems interested in. The other is the question of the warrant of arrest for Moqtada al-Sadr and the dissolution of his Madhi Army. Sadr is holed up in the city of Najaf, sacred to the Shi'ites, with a brigade in loose blockade around the city. Another area -- one that has received scant attention from the press -- is the battle on the Syrian border to interdict the ratlines to Fallujah along the Euphrates river. A story by the AP's Robert Burns described this long and largely ignored battlefront.
Maj. Gen. John Sattler, director of operations for Central Command, said a number of Marines have been killed in the process. He said security concerns prevented him from saying how many died, how many are involved in the border-sealing effort or how many infiltrators they caught. "We had an extreme amount of success on the front side, meaning that we did find, fix and ultimately finish a number of cells that were up there that were facilitating" the infiltration, he said. The State Department, meanwhile, said Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a message this week to Syrian President Bashar Assad urging that his government help promote stability in Iraq.
"We know for a fact that a lot of them find their way into Iraq through Syria for sure," he said, referring to foreign fighters who are seeking to kill Americans. "I mean, we know that. The ones we've captured, the ones we've detained, we know how they get here," he said, adding that "to some extent the same thing happens on the Iranian border as well." U.S. officials have frequently cited the Syrian border as a source of foreign extremists who make their way east to the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, and in some cases to Baghdad, and attack U.S. forces.
By tomorrow however, it is likely to be front page news that at least 300 men, a force of battalion size, complete with mortars and uniforms, attacked the Marines near Camp Al-Qaim, less than half a kilometer from the Syrian border, resulting in the death of 5 Marines in exchange for the practical annihilation of the attacking force. (See map)
According to the Marines, the insurgents apparently ignited the bomb as a decoy. A Marine unit responding to the bomb pulled in front of the former Bath Party headquarters here at around 8:30 a.m., where they were met by rocket propelled grenades and machine gun fire. The unit radioed for help, and a second group of Marines trying to reach them were hit by heave mortar fire as they traveled along their normal route into the city. Once the second group of Marines arrived in the city, they were strafed by small arms and machine gun fire from insurgents hiding homes along their route. As more Marines were sent from the nearby base, the day-long battle ensued. All of the slain Marines were killed in the first 90 minutes of the battle, when they went to clear a house and were ambushed by Iraqis hiding in the building.
Late Saturday night, Marine Cobra helicopter gunships were still strafing enemy positions around the soccer stadium near downtown Husaybah while medical evacuation helicopters carried wounded Marines back to Camp Al Qaim. ...
Marines cordoned off the city of about 100,000 residents, halting all traffic in and out except for women and children who were fleeing the fighting. At one point, many of the insurgents reportedly had gathered in a local mosque, and Marines were preparing to bomb the building. They pulled back the attack, however, when they couldn't not get positive identification of the occupants of the mosque. According to Marine snipers reporting to their commanders by radio, some of the insurgents fired at Marines and then hid behind children. "We're trying to get the snipers in position for a shot," Major George Schreffler told the other commanders through tactical radio communications. "They're looking at guys in blue uniforms and others with black clothes and black masks. Some are using children to shield themselves. We will not take shots in which we could possibly hit children."
In a related development, the US announced it was shutting the western highways out of Baghdad, which lead directly to Ar Ramadi and Fallujah -- and onward to Qaim, ostensibly due to lack of security on these routes. However, it has the secondary effect of preventing open movement by nonmilitary vehicles along these routes, clearing the stage as it were, for any following act.
The last two weeks in Iraq have been characterized by almost continuous 'secret' combat, where quiet and low level operations have been continuously underway in Ramadi, Fallujah, on the outskirts of Najaf, in Kut and on the Syrian border. Although reported by the press as mere incidents, disconnected ambushes or random minings, over 80 US soldiers have died in what amounts to a widespread campaign of operations across the entire middle of the Land Between the Rivers. Oliver North reports:
During my first 40 hours on the ground, anti-Iraqi forces haven't stopped shooting at the Marines, making it more difficult to get around. ... In fact, in ar-Ramadi, it's going a lot better than some might perceive. While much of the media's attention has focused on Fallujah, where four American civilians were killed, here in ar-Ramadi, Marines and soldiers are socking it to the enemy. "The fighting has been intense, but we've been kicking butt everywhere we go," is the way one Marine sergeant described it to me
Yet to the outside observer it has seemed a shapeless campaign either because it is shapeless, merely a set of defensive reactions by an overstretched and bewildered US military, or because we are being kept from seeing the outlines of the campaign by CENTCOM itself. Although the media has painted a picture of a command caught wholly by surprise, the Belmont Club noted in The Recursive Battle that CENTCOM began tightening up on the Iranian border 45 days before the Iranian stooge Sadr launched his attack on the Spanish base. The skirmishes along the Syrian border and on the riverline leading southwest to Fallujah have also been happening for some time. Ron Harris of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on April 13th that a Marine company commander realized he stumbled on to an unreported hot zone.
Gannon was surprised when he saw the heavy casualty reports from the 82nd Airborne, which had been there before the Marines. "I was, like, 'Whoa, why haven't we been reading about this?'" he said while sitting in the small office that is his command center. "What's been going on here? Have they been having some kind of silent war? And, sure enough, they had been."
Indeed, it is virtually certain that Al-Qaim, Ramadi and Fallujah and the road network from Baghdad constitute a single "front" centered on Syria, whose principal axis is the Euphrates itself. Operations in Fallujah cannot be understood without putting it in the context of the wider area. A more balanced assessment suggests that CENTCOM was aware of an offensive in preparation on the anniversary of OIF as strongly hinted by the reluctance by US commanders to rush into recovering the bodies of the mutilated contractors at Fallujah. It is very probable that CENTCOM has had a counteroffensive plan on the books for some weeks now, that while those plans did not entirely survive the first shock of contact with the enemy, they exist all the same. Those who have been following the news stories will have noted that nearly all press accounts have highlighted the activities of MARCENT like a matador's cape, while ARCENT (the US Army) hardly appears at all. Apart from the spotlight on a few carefully chosen locations, such as Fallujah and the outskirts of Najaf, many major US formations have simply dropped out of media sight. That state of affairs can't last much longer. The recent battle on the Syrian border adds to growing list of crises whose resolution cannot long be delayed.
Personally, I get the sense that US forces are letting a pre-planned set of attacks blunt themselves on its shield and are letting the sword flash out only in limited counterattacks. But of the larger game we know nothing as yet; whether it is deep or simply does not exist. But we will know it soon.