The enthusiasm of U.S. Marine captains Thomas “Tad” Douglas and David Nevers can hardly be contained. Their voices, alternately crackling over a weak satellite-phone connection, are heartening as they describe the successes they are witnessing in Iraq. The insurgency is losing ground. Iraqi civilians, feeling less afraid than in previous months, are increasingly coming forward with solid information about the bad guys. And a new Iraqi special-operations force is taking the lead in wiping out guerilla strongholds, south of Baghdad.
From their operating base in Kalsu (so-named for Bob Kalsu, a Buffalo Bills lineman and Army lieutenant who was killed during the Vietnam War), Douglas tells National Review Online, “The Iraqis are performing well-above my expectations. Their strengths are their aggressiveness and mobility, and we are enhancing those strengths.”
Douglas, commander of a Marine Force reconnaissance platoon and a reconnaissance and surveillance platoon, is referring to a crack Iraqi SWAT (special-weapons and tactics) team, sometimes referred to as the Al Hillah SWAT team.
Last week, the Iraqi SWAT team and other members of the Iraqi security forces (about 800 men combined) backed by U.S. Marines (about 1,300) launched an offensive aimed at retaking guerilla strongholds south of the Sunni Triangle. The strongholds lie within Babil province, home of the ancient city of Babylon, though today a virtual no-man’s-land rife with kidnappings, ambushes, and murder.
The offensive continues this week, with Iraqi SWAT commandos and Douglas’s Marines attacking guerilla bases, and resistance forces launching progressively weakening counter-attacks. On Monday, the joint Iraqi-American force raided a base in the province, netting two guerillas killed and more than ten captured. Like other raids in this ongoing offensive, the Iraqi SWAT team is at the proverbial tip of the spear.
Nevers, a spokesman for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), says “the new force may be a SWAT team in name, but in terms of training and direct-action capabilities they are quite a bit more than a paramilitary police force. They are more closely comparable to a U.S. military special-operations force.”
Unlike other U.S. special-operations forces, little is known about the responsibilities and mission scope of force recon. The reasoning can be found in the secretive nature of force-recon operations as well as the longstanding view held by Marine leaders that the entire Corps is “special” and no single Marine unit is better than another. That said, force-recon Marines receive training beyond that received by leathernecks serving in front-line rifle companies. Force-recon Marines are experts in precision direct-action, close-quarters fighting, and deep reconnaissance operations. As such, they are trained to survive in the worst types of environments, handle all manner of weapons and explosives, and employ a variety of battlefield tactics. They also receive training as parachutists and open-water divers.
Though their work rarely makes the papers, force-recon Marines are playing a major role in the war on terror. Douglas, for instance, was a key leader in the dramatic rescue of Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch in April 2003. Since then, these Marines have been conducting combat and surveillance operations throughout the country. They’ve operated both independently and with other Marine forces and Navy SEALs.
Over the past several days, however, force-recon Marines have been running missions with the new Iraqi SWAT team in Babil province. It’s a natural fit. After all, force recon trained the special Iraqi unit, sharing with the latter the raiding and close-combat techniques for which all Marines are famous.
Training began in July when the Marines began honing the skills of a handful of picked men from the provincial capital of Al Hillah. The men, who would ultimately comprise the Iraqi (Al Hillah) SWAT team, received instruction in marksmanship, tactics, and the finer points of mission-planning, decision-making, and combat leadership.
“This are an emerging force, and yet they are taking the lead in our operations against the insurgents,” says Nevers. “We conducted an operation a month ago in which this force did most of the planning and then physically led the way. The operation was very successful, and it consequently set the stage for what we are doing right now.”
Asked if those on the team are more-formidable fighters than the best Iraqi troops faced by U.S. forces during the spring 2003 invasion, Nevers is quick to respond, “Yes, and they are far better than the Iraqis we were contending with in April 2004 [during the brutal fighting in and around Fallujah and Ramadi].”
Douglas points to the team’s unique talents. “It’s kind of like when you are coaching a baseball team and you want to play to the strength of the ballplayers to fit the system,” he says. “These men are very good at clearing and direct-action. They literally swarm over an objective and that has a tremendously negative psychological affect on the enemy.”
According to Douglas, the strength of the Iraqi SWAT team lies not so much in precision single-point clearing missions, a specialty of force recon, but in functioning as shock troops. “Iraqis are very good at raiding a particular area and quickly clearing several buildings at once,” he says. “I’m afraid if we train them more on the precision clearing, they might lose that aggressiveness and speed that now serves them so well.”
Speed indeed: When Iraqi SWAT commandos hit a target, they hit it hard. Racing forward in white pick-up trucks emblazoned with the unit’s emblem–a black scorpion and dagger (an emblem designed by the Iraqis)–the raiders leap from the vehicles and rush toward their objective almost before the enemy has time to panic. The attackers–primarily in their early to mid-twenties–are armed with a variety of personal weapons including AK-47s and SIG Sauer assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, and grenades. They all wear khaki-colored assault suits (similar to zip-up flight suits) with an Iraqi-flag patch stitched on the shoulder. Khaki or black balaclavas cover their heads, concealing their faces. “The Iraqis like wearing balaclavas,” says Douglas. “It makes them look fearless, and terrifies the enemy.”
While the team is kicking in doors, observation helicopters are thundering overhead watching for bad guys attempting to escape or enemy reinforcements moving up. Attack helicopters and jets are flying on-station ready to suppress any resistance or a counter-attack. And within a few hundred yards of the assault, U.S. Marines are poised to move-in should the raid begin to unravel.
Over the past several days, this “swarming” technique has netted numerous enemy prisoners and weapons caches in the 24th MEU’s area of responsibility. And the speed with which they attack actually keeps casualties low.
The success of the new unit has instilled “great confidence” in both SWAT-team members and regular Iraqi soldiers, says Col. Salaam Abdul al Kathom, the commander of the Iraqi SWAT team. It has also increased pride and a greater sense of security for the Iraqi people.
“With the Americans, we’re the same team, no difference,” Col. Kathom says, through an interpreter. “The training is very good. I am very, very happy with the progress. We will destroy the bad guys.”
Still, additional training and experience is needed. “Developing such a force requires patience,” says Nevers. “The cohesiveness we Americans take for granted is not universal, but we are witnessing that cohesiveness in this force. We are holding them to near unreasonable standards and they are measuring up to those standards.”
The success of a new, elite, independently operating Iraqi force is good news. What about the bad?
“Optimism in the face of obstacles is no vice,” says Nevers. “We get criticized for complaining about the negative news coverage, but it is because we are here. We know exactly what is going on, and we believe in our ability to get this done. Tremendous progress is being made every single day, but is often lost in the daily reports of car bombs and ambushes.”
He adds, “Look, we don’t want to dismiss casualties or down-play setbacks. This is a dangerous environment and we know it. But here in Iraq every step back is three steps forward. And that’s not an opinion. That’s a fact.”
Douglas agrees. “This country has progressed light years since I was here in 2003,” he says.
Though the Iraqi SWAT team is the only unit of its kind, other Iraqi special operations forces are being developed within the Iraqi National Guard and security forces. Those units are being fielded throughout the contested regions of the country, particularly within the Sunni Triangle. Earlier this month, a battalion of Iraqi “police commandos,” supported by the Army’s 1st Infantry Division–the famous Big Red One–led the way at many points in the retaking of the city of Samarra, southeast of Tikrit in the northern point of the triangle.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist and the author of four books, including the Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces.