“We’re here to remove all of the thugs operating in the city.”–Capt. Phil Treglia, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines
Straining at the leash, grunts and tank crews with the 1st Marine Division continue observing the ordered suspension of offensive combat operations in Fallujah, Iraq.
Still, the Marines have been shot at day-and-night. In all cases, they’ve returned fire often engaging the enemy in a series of maneuvering street battles sometimes lasting for hours.
Marines–and attached U.S. Army forces–have also conducted raids throughout the country, capturing terrorists and seizing large weapons caches. On Saturday, five Marines were killed in an ambush near Husaybah on the Iraqi-Syrian border. And on Sunday, guerilla forces opened fire on Marines from a mosque in Fallujah.
The battles are tough: In most cases, they are launched by teams of enemy snipers or rebel units lying in ambush. But morale among U.S. troops is remarkably high, disabusing the suggestion among naysayers back home that Iraq is another Vietnam.
“There’s a lot of fighting going on, but my boys are still motivated,” says Staff Sgt. Pedro Marrufo of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines.
Cpl. Justin M. Rettenberger, a rifle squad leader with the same regiment, agrees.
“We will win the hearts and minds of Fallujah by ridding the city of insurgents,” he says. “We’re doing that by patrolling the streets and killing the enemy.”
It’s a simple Marine maxim: Locate, close with, and destroy the enemy. But Marines in Iraq are doing much more.
On April 6–the same day 11 Marines and one Navy medical corpsman were killed in Ramadi–a group of artillerymen with 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines played soccer with Iraqis in the town of Nukhayb. Few if any newspapers reported the game. It didn’t bleed, so it didn’t lead. But it’s all part of building a new Iraq.
“It’s fun having the Americans here, because it’s all about building friendships,” said Ali Tayish, 19, a local resident. “We’re all brothers. We’d play soccer with them everyday if we could.”
In other regions of the country, Marines and soldiers are delivering much needed food and medical supplies to openly grateful Iraqis. That’s not all: School supplies, carpentry tools, sporting goods, even Frisbees–two tons of them–from the Los Angeles-based “Spirit of America” organization are finding their way into Iraqi hands. The Frisbees are emblazoned with the word “friendship” in both English and Arabic.
“We want to make sure the Iraqis know that we are not just a uniform,” says 2nd Lt. Robert L. Nofsinger of 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines. “We want them to know that we are not some strange, mythical creatures, but we are people who want to help them any way we can.”
Marines and soldiers in Iraq contend that, despite what they are reading in the papers, most Iraqis welcome their presence. The country is indeed being rebuilt. Basic water and other utility infrastructures are in place. Hospitals are receiving updated equipment daily. People are working and children are going to school. That’s not to say that there are not major security concerns, and fighting has indeed increased dramatically over the past two weeks. Much of the spike in Iraqi combat has been attributed to foreign fighters slipping over the borders from Syria and Iran, as well as the call-to-arms from troublemakers like Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr.
The son of a grand ayatollah who was assassinated in 1999, Sadr is currently holed-up in the city of Najaf, where he continues to enflame the passions of his followers. Those followers are “few and mostly desperate youth and the poor,” says 1st Lt. Eric Knapp, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Division. “That or they revere his father. And Sadr gains from that family loyalty.”
Knapp and other Marines and soldiers on the ground, say support for Sadr is not what many throughout the world are being led to believe. Though reports out of Iraq claim that the Shiites and the Sunnis are working together against Coalition forces, the truth is far different. There are in fact rebel fighters who support both Sadr and the continuation of resistance in-and-around Fallujah. But long-running feuds die hard. The relationship between Shiite and Sunni–not unlike that of the Hatfields and McCoys–is presenting major coordination problems for insurgent forces as they continue their efforts against the Coalition. It does not mean there aren’t American troops and innocent Iraqis being killed and property destroyed. It does mean that Sadr and his bunch are struggling to galvanize rebel forces in an ill-fated power grab.
Fact is, there is little if any support for Sadr in the Sunni triangle. Additionally, “most Shiite clerics in the south, see Sadr as an upstart and a moron, and would rather see him go away,” says Knapp. “He’s 30–if that, he lies about his age–and he is basically telling these 60, 70-year-old clerics that he is their equal. It’s like a lieutenant telling a colonel he has the same experience and ability to lead.”
The greatest difficulty for Sadr and others opposing U.S. forces is that they are facing “the best trained, most highly skilled, smartest group of kids ever to wear the uniform,” says Col. Jeff Bearor at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia. “No Marine ever deploys without every scrap of operational and tactical knowledge we can impart to them.” Still, Bearor concedes, “it’s a tough fight,” adding the insurgents are a “tough, dedicated, even fanatical enemy who hate us just because of who we are and what we represent.”
The fighting has indeed escalated in Iraq. For those on the outside looking in, it may at times appear that U.S. forces are becoming embroiled in an inextricable quagmire. But for the young Americans there on the ground, it is a fight they are winning and a noble cause they are committed to seeing through to completion.
In the words of 1st Lt. Edward M. Solis, a platoon commander with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, “If the enemy only knew our will, they would’ve given up by now.”
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.