As Iraqi elections draw near, U.S. troops face security challenge in Anbar
January 11, 2005
HADITHAH, Iraq — It is a stretch of barren, desert road that runs for about 60 miles between what would normally be two unremarkable Iraqi towns on the Euphrates River. But the Hit-Hadithah Corridor, and the Marines assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit who patrol it, stand as a stark reminder of the challenges facing the U.S. mission.
The corridor runs through western Anbar province. It is littered with roadside bombs; local officials have balked at the push for Jan. 30 elections; and the U.S. military and the insurgents have waged an ongoing war for the support of the local population.
“Things will be pretty interesting over the next few weeks,” said Sgt. William Henderson, who leads a Mobile Assault Platoon in security patrols of the area.
“Some days they like us, some days they don’t,” said Staff Sgt. Thomas Watson, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, of the towns the Marines patrol. “The little kids still smile and wave, because they’re expecting candy. The older the kids get, the less they smile at us. Reality is what it is.”
With Iraq’s national elections less than three weeks away, Marines on the ground say they have a sense that critical mass is approaching. While the U.S. mission in Iraq will not be made or broken by the elections, they said, it seems much of their effort is coming to a head.
Now, the soldiers and Marines around Iraq must meet their biggest challenge. Providing security for those willing to vote.
On Friday, President Bush told reporters in Washington that keeping the elections on course will be a daunting task for the U.S. military, especially in four of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
One of those four is Anbar, which also includes the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
Attacks on U.S. troops currently average 70 a day and military officials expect attacks to increase to 85 a day as the election nears.
Marine commanders in Anbar have been given more physical assets to deal with.
Last week in a meeting that included the local Iraqi National Guard general, Lt. Col. Greg Stevens, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment commander, pulled the general aside.
“When you get back to Hit, I’ve got a surprise for you,” Stevens said in a stage whisper, smiling broadly. “Actually, four surprises. And they each weigh about 70 tons.”
The surprises were Abrams main battle tanks, an imposing presence both physically and psychologically. The Marines have deployed them in several areas throughout the Hit-Hadithah Corridor, Stevens said. Marines in the area have largely operated from Humvees and trucks, instead of heavy armor vehicles.
Vehicle armor remains an issue with some of the Marines patrolling the corridor, they said.
Some Marines patrol in “highbacks” — Humvees with open beds surrounded by high pieces of metal. Others escort convoys in Humvees with soft canvas tops, no windows and metal-panel doors that won't stay shut.
Other units have fully armored M1114 Humvees, the heaviest in the U.S. arsenal. Sometimes, though, they are given to personnel who rarely leave the wire.
“I’m sure the pogues need those,” muttered Staff Sgt. Edwin Morgenthaler, pulling out with a convoy of lightly armored vehicles, using military slang for soldiers or Marines whose jobs keep them on base.
But armor isn’t everything.
On Saturday, Marines were talking about the seven soldiers killed near Baghdad by a massive roadside bomb detonated under their 25-ton Bradley fighting vehicle.
Soldiers and Marines have been remarkably open about voicing their concerns. They wonder frequently about whether people in their hometowns realize how cold it is in Iraq right now, how frequently they put themselves at risk or how many of their friends have been killed or wounded.
“Look, a lot of these guys should be back at college or taking their girl out to a movie,” said one senior officer in a Marine Force Reserve battalion. “I don’t know if the people back home really understand what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis.”