HADITHA, Iraq — Marines have stepped up efforts along the Euphrates River to remove insurgents who were forced out of Fallouja and now hope to establish a sanctuary to aid their guerrilla campaign.
Marines from the 1st Battalion, 23rd Regiment, a reserve unit from Houston, say the November assault on Fallouja led to a change in the insurgents' tactics and character.
"After Fallouja, we started to get more professional jihadists," said Maj. Shea Russell, commanding officer of the battalion's Weapons Company.
Russell said intelligence showed that many of the leaders of the Fallouja insurgents had moved northwest to avoid the U.S. assault, and were using an existing network of roads, safe houses and watering holes used by smugglers in the desert and in towns that parallel the Euphrates as it snakes into Iraq from Syria.
Russell's troops are also trying to shut down overland routes on which foreign fighters arrive from Syria, including an unmarked trail known as the Thieves Highway. The campaign mirrors that of another Marine unit -- the 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment -- farther south along the border with Syria.
Other insurgents who fled Fallouja, many of them foot soldiers, are thought to have gone to Baghdad or south of the capital, where military operations have been launched to kill or capture them.
The impact of the foreign fighters is more than just their numbers, said Col. John Coleman, chief of staff of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. The foreigners provide the "fervor and cash" that fuel the insurgency, he said.
Haditha, about 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, is part of the so-called Sunni Triangle. Violence against anyone linked to the U.S. has been continual.
The U.S.-backed mayor of Haditha was assassinated in 2003. The police station was bombed. Police and government workers have gone into hiding, in effect leaving the city to be run by tribal elders.
The U.S. had hoped that newly trained Iraqi police would assume responsibility for Haditha, a city of about 50,000. Instead, their blue and white cars sit idle in the parking lot of the battalion's headquarters, the mammoth Haditha Dam, about 10 miles outside the city.
The insurgents, Marines said, have changed their tactics. Fewer movements are made at night because of U.S. success with night-vision surveillance.
The rebels often put away their weapons and melt into the populace. "For the insurgent, the people are his camouflage," said Sgt. Daniel Dance, a platoon leader.
Although the effort to catch insurgents has increased, the number of Marines assigned to the area has not. In fact, the 1st Battalion, 23rd Regiment, is responsible for an area that once was assigned to two battalions.
Col. Craig Tucker, commanding officer of the Twentynine Palms-based Regimental Combat Team 7, which includes the 1st Battalion, 23rd, said the move of insurgents into the Euphrates River corridor was inevitable once the assault on Fallouja began.
"We went into the center of evil and destroyed it," Tucker said. "When that happens, you're going to have dispersion."
Tucker predicted that the Iraqi army would soon move forces into the Haditha area and provide some of the capability that was lost when one battalion was withdrawn.
Tucker said he hoped that with greater security, the Marines working on projects to help Iraqi civilians could spend more time in the communities. Insurgents have targeted those civil affairs teams, he said.
"When we had two battalions here, we'd go out to a school or police station and spend hours," he said. "That time will come again."
The result of last year's troop reduction has been long patrols along highways and rutted trails, punctuated by short periods of rest. Snipers spend days waiting to catch an insurgent planting a roadside bomb.
"They're being pushed to the limit, but they're keeping it together," said Navy Corpsman Mark Elliott, who accompanies the Marines.
One of the Marines' successful missions came the night of Jan. 26. It also proved to be one of the more costly.
Based on a tip, troops stormed a house in Haditha where insurgent leader Ali Mohammed, also known as Abdul Jalil, was reportedly staying. Mohammed was thought to be a top lieutenant of insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.
Insurgents fought back with rocket-propelled grenades, bombs and small-arms fire. Marines reported insurgent fire coming from a mosque.
As Marines moved to evacuate their wounded, insurgents attacked. An airstrike by an Air Force AC-130 gunship killed about 10 insurgents, including Mohammed. Four Marines, whose Humvee was hit either by a bomb or rocket-propelled grenade, were killed.
Russell remains optimistic that constant pressure like the Jan. 26 raid will wear down the insurgents.
"The way to defeat the insurgents is to disrupt them, spread them thin and wait for them to make a mistake," he said.