31st MEU works to disrupt insurgents' support system, secure border area
January 5, 2005
AL ASAD, Iraq — Since arriving in Iraq last fall, the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit has undertaken one of the broadest missions — both in terms of responsibilities and geography — of any U.S. military unit in the country.
The unit’s area of operations covers 33,000 square miles, stretching west from Ramadi to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Its missions include tracking down insurgent fighters, securing borders, stabilizing the region ahead of national elections, providing air support, securing supply routes and patrolling the Euphrates River with a small-craft company, among others.
“The key is to disrupt the insurgents’ flow. I view it as keeping them from crossing the Euphrates into the center of gravity: Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah,” said Col. W. Lee Miller, 31st MEU commander.
One of the MEU’s toughest assignments, Miller said, is patrolling and securing the vast, desert borders. The Marines work with and train Iraqi border patrols, including military and police units. In addition to insurgents, the region is rife with trade and smuggling routes that have existed for thousands of years.
But the mission is not to stop, for example, nomadic shepherds from moving their flocks across the border.
“The things we do look for are weapons, money and military-age males who have no business being in this country,” Miller said. “My job is to stop as much of that as possible.”
This week, Marines from the 31st MEU targeted a series of what they call “transient camps” for foreign fighters sneaking into Iraq. The Marines arrested several suspects, seized weapons and large amounts of cash, and shut down suspected insurgent safe houses.
“The word is out that they’re going to be cold and miserable. Those guys who want to get their jihad on like it’s spring break won’t want to do that now,” Miller said. “We are better trained and more motivated. The [insurgents] will eventually be eliminated as a group that can disrupt the Iraqi government and Iraqi people.”
The 31st MEU, which includes 900 Okinawa-based Marines and some 2,000 others from California and Hawaii, has learned just how volatile their region can be.
“The atmospherics can change in 12 to 24 hours,” Miller said. “For 38 years, the people here lived under a dictatorial leader. The population knows that and lived under his ruthlessness for most of their lives. It’s going to take a lot of time to change.”
But Miller says he sees encouraging signs that lasting progress has been made. At vehicle checkpoints just after New Year’s, Marine civil affairs units spoke with local residents to gauge their feelings on the situation.
While some said the insurgency and continued fighting were beginning to take a psychological toll, others reported that local religious leaders were starting to preach support for U.S.-led forces, Miller said.
“That is the change in atmospherics that I wanted. These people realize the best way is to support the multinational forces until they can get their own security forces on their feet. And every day, I see positive changes in the [Iraqi National Guard],” he said.
“I attribute that to rooting out the bad guys in the area. Rarely a day goes by that we don’t have a success out here, whether big or small.”
Indeed, the 31st MEU has captured more than two dozen fighters in recent weeks and seized several large caches of weapons.
But those successes have not come without a heavy price. Since arriving in Iraq last fall, the 31st MEU has suffered 21 combat deaths and nearly 150 Marines have been wounded in action.
Gunnery Sgt. Troy Bruss, 31st MEU chief of operations, said Marines here face a full range of attacks: direct small- arms fire, indirect fire such as mortars and rockets, roadside bombs, car bombs, suicide attacks and land mines.
In some areas, the form of attacks depends “on what part of the month it is,” said Bruss, a 39-year-old from Bondeul, Wis.
One route has earned the nickname “Mine Alley” because of the insurgents’ tactic of digging up and reburying land mines at different locations, sometimes even triggering them from under paved roads. Another intersection is called “IED Corner,” using the now-ubiquitous military acronym for improvised explosive device.
The Marines, living at relatively Spartan camps in a largely barren area, have become used to 18-hour duty days, which often stretch into two days without sleep.
“They are doing a great job. We can’t ask anything more of them,” Bruss said.
The unit has had its Iraq deployment extended once, now putting it on schedule to return to Okinawa around March.
“It has been an honor and is an honor to serve with these men and women. They are extremely selfless and believe in what they are doing. Not one has ever dropped his or her pack,” Miller said, emphasizing the importance of building on the work done so far.
“If we let our guard down, it can change in a matter of 24 hours. We are obsessed with not losing the positive ground that we have gained since getting here.”