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U.S. Navy tackles a hole in the insurgent security net

In a throwback to Vietnam, sailors take to Iraq's waterways to stem the flow of weapons and men.

February 24, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

ON LAKE QADISIYA, IRAQ — As their craft glides at high speed over the chilly waters behind the massive Haditha Dam, the U.S. sailors aboard Riverine Patrol Boat 13 spot a slow-moving rowboat that seems out of place.

Navy Lt. Jeffrey Werby cannot immediately be sure whether the rowboat spells danger.

"They could be just scrawny guys trying to make a living or fishing," says Werby, officer in charge of a four-boat squad based at the dam. "Or they could be something."

Werby and the other sailors, 10 per patrol boat, will find out which it is in due time.

President Bush, in his State of the Union address last month, said the insurgents in Iraq were on the run. If so, it is the Navy's job to see that they do not run toward the Euphrates River in an effort to avoid capture and continue their fight.

"It's our job to close the seam that insurgents and other irreconcilables have been using to get men, supplies and weapons to Baghdad," said Cmdr. Glen Leverette, who oversees a boat squad based at Haditha Dam and squads that go to the Euphrates from bases at Qaim and Taqaddum.

"We want them to know that the water is no longer a safe haven."

In a throwback to the days of Swift boats in Vietnam, the Navy has a dozen patrol boats prowling the Euphrates and this immense reservoir dotted with small islands and fishing villages along the shore. Lake Qadisiya is 20 miles across at some points.

The patrol boat sailors honor their predecessors in numerous ways. Boats carry the names of Medal of Honor recipients from Vietnam. Radio call signs are the same ones that river units used for that war.

The boat that spotted the two fishermen carries the name of James E. Williams, the most decorated sailor of the Vietnam War, who was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross and two Silver Stars for his service aboard patrol boats.

A Vietnam-era organization, the Mobile Riverine Force Assn., has welcomed the new sailors into its fraternity. The group sent 22 boxes of food and other gifts to the 200-plus Iraq-based sailors at Christmas.

The Navy, despite widespread use of patrol boats of various designs for coastal and waterway duty, largely abandoned the command after Vietnam. Initially the river patrol job in Iraq was assigned to the Marine Corps.

But the Marines, notoriously reluctant to cede any duty to another service, decided that they could use their troops better elsewhere. The Navy, hoping to expand its role in Iraq and future inland conflicts through its Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, jumped at the chance to reactivate its riverine program.

A call went out in 2006 for enlisted personnel and officers eager to try something different. Dozens came running for what turned out to be months of arduous training, including a stint at the Marines' School of Infantry at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

For many sailors who had spent years in various billets at sea, the chance to start a new command was irresistible.

What was the attraction?

"The fast boats and the guns," said Pat Gehrke, lead chief petty officer for Werby's squad.

"It's different than anything in the Navy," said Lt. j.g. Christopher Polnaszek.

The first group of Navy river squads arrived in Iraq in early 2007. Leverette's is the second batch, arriving last fall for a seven-month hitch.

Numerous caches of weapons have been discovered along the banks of the Euphrates and Lake Qadisiya (pronounced by the sailors as "Lake Quesadilla").

Seventy-three boats have been seized since Leverette's squads arrived. Many fishermen in boats and on the shore have been stopped, questioned and photographed.

Sailors look particularly at hands and boots because fishermen have rough hands and worn boots. "You find soft hands and nice boots, you know you have a problem," one sailor said.

For the most part, residents seem to accept without great resentment the questioning by sailors and the seizure of boats. Iraqi law calls for the seizure of unregistered boats, and many villagers and fishermen appear to prefer sailors who provide some measure of safety over insurgents with a history of slayings, extortion or other problems.

On shore, the sailors hand out candy to Iraqi boys helping their fathers with the net fishing.

"We're winning hearts and minds, one Jolly Rancher at a time," Petty Officer Kevin Smith said, referring to a type of rock candy.

Although none of the boats have fired a shot in anger, they are armed with machine guns and each sailor has an M-4 rifle, a handgun or both. "We pack a wallop," Leverette said.

The 39-foot boats, with a cruising speed of 30 knots, also have access to the best of American technology that allows them to see for miles, day or night. With a shallow draft, the boats can be used to take Marines or Navy SEALs to the shore.

On this day, the patrol crew figures that the two fishermen in a rusty, precarious-looking metal boat present no danger. The patrol boat glides alongside as the crew uses a grappling hook to pull the Iraqi boat closer.

Through an interpreter, the two fishermen answer a question about why they are rowing rather than using a boat with a motor. "For the exercise," one jokes.

Sailors search their boat. They learn that the fishermen's other boat had been seized by Americans and had not yet been returned.

The fishermen receive permission to return to the muscle-straining business of pulling up nets loaded with fat carp.

Riverine Patrol Boat 13 continues on its way.

Insurgents, Werby says, try to blend in with the public "and hide among normal citizens by threatening them. . . . It's our job to find them."

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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