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Insurgents Flourish in Iraq's Wild West

The center of the rebel movement has shifted to Al Anbar province, near the border with Syria. But the U.S. has been moving its forces away.

May 24, 2005|Mark Mazzetti and Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military's plan to pacify Iraq has run into trouble in a place where it urgently needs to succeed.

U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad agree that Al Anbar province -- the vast desert badlands stretching west from the cities of Fallouja and Ramadi to the lawless region abutting the Syrian border -- remains the epicenter of the country's deadly insurgency.

Yet U.S. troops and military officials in the embattled province said in recent interviews that they have neither enough combat power nor enough Iraqi military support to mount an effective counterinsurgency against an increasingly sophisticated enemy.

"You can't get all the Marines and train them on a single objective, because usually the objective is bigger than you are," said Maj. Mark Lister, a senior Marine air officer in Al Anbar province. "Basically, we've got all the toys, but not enough boys."

The Pentagon has made training Iraqi troops its top priority since Iraq's national election in late January. But in Al Anbar province, that objective is overshadowed by the more basic mission of trying to keep much of the region out of insurgent hands.

Just three battalions of Marines are stationed in the western part of the province, down from four a few months ago. Marine officials in western Al Anbar say that each of those battalions is smaller by one company than last year, meaning there are approximately 2,100 Marines there now, compared with about 3,600 last year.

Some U.S. military officers in Al Anbar province say that commanders in Baghdad and the Pentagon have denied their repeated requests for more troops.

"[Commanders] can't use the word, but we're withdrawing," said one U.S. military official in Al Anbar province, who asked not to be identified because it is the Pentagon that usually speaks publicly about troop levels. "Slowly, that's what we're doing."

Such reductions are especially problematic because U.S. commanders have determined that it is the western part of the province to which the insurgency's "center of resistance" has shifted. The insurgency's base of operations was once the eastern corridor between Fallouja and Ramadi. Now, Pentagon officials say, it is in villages and cities closer to the Syrian border.

Commanders also believe the insurgency is now made up of a larger percentage of foreign jihadists than the U.S. military previously believed, an indication that there are not enough U.S. and Iraqi troops to patrol miles of desert border.

Some Pentagon officials and experts in counterinsurgency warfare say the troop shortage has hamstrung the U.S. military's ability to effectively fight Iraqi insurgents.

This was evident during this month's Operation Matador, the U.S. offensive near the Syrian border designed to stem the flow of foreign fighters and their weapons into Iraq. For seven days, Marines rumbled through desert villages and fought pitched battles against a surprisingly well-coordinated enemy.

On the first day of the operation, insurgents appeared to be willing to stand their ground and fight the Marines, but U.S. military officials now believe that may have been a tactic to delay U.S. troops from crossing into the Ramana region north of the Euphrates River. This delay, officials said, could have given many of the insurgents time to escape into Syria.

"It's an extremely frustrating fight," said Maj. Steve White, operations director for the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment. "Fighting these guys is like picking up water. You're going to lose some every time."

A military news release declared the mission a success, saying that U.S. troops had killed more than 125 insurgents. Nine Marines were killed and 40 were wounded during the operation.

Yet as soon as the operation concluded, the Marines crossed back over the Euphrates River and left no U.S. or Iraqi government presence in the region -- generally considered a major mistake in counterinsurgency warfare.

"It's classically the wrong thing to do," said Kalev Sepp, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who last fall was a counterinsurgency advisor to Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq. "Sending 1,000 men north of the Euphrates does what? Sometimes these things can be counterproductive, because you just end up shooting things up and then leaving the area."

Military officials in Iraq and Washington said there was little reason to expect that insurgent fighters would not return to the villages.

"The right thing to do would have been to sweep the area with U.S. troops, and hold it with Iraqi troops," said a military official and counterinsurgency expert at the Pentagon who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not an official Pentagon spokesman.

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