Marines set up shop along insurgents' route from Syria into Iraq
HUSAYBAH, Iraq — Thousands of U.S. Marines swept across the eastern half of this desolate border city Wednesday night, finding limited resistance in a key area long considered an insurgent stronghold and passageway on the route from Syria.
Periodic explosions were heard across the city of roughly 40,000 residents as the Marines, assisted by an Iraqi battalion, began setting up a permanent presence in the city in the form of firm bases and battle positions.
“We’ve seen stiff resistance in some places and not so stiff in others,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher Joy, of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
One Marine has been killed and 15 wounded during the first five days of Operation Steel Curtain, which has seen them take the western half of the city. A roadside bomb on Wednesday struck a convoy going to Husaybah, wounding five Marines.
The Marines planned to continue the operation, now in its fifth day, until troops moving street-by-street link up with existing U.S. forces on the city’s edges. The city has not had a significant presence of U.S. troops for more than one year.
U.S. forces say the city of Husaybah is a key transit point for weapons and suicide bombers moving into Iraq from Syria. The operation this week marks the final phase of the Marines’ efforts to sweep the Euphrates Valley, which includes most of the Iraq’s most entrenched insurgent strongholds.
“It’s the last stop on the bus line to Syria,” said Col. Stephen Davis, commander of Regimental Combat Team 2. “The goal is to sweep the trash back to Syria, where it came from.”
Although they faced limited gunfire, the Marines found many improvised bombs placed throughout the city, including a dump truck rigged with an estimated 3,000 pounds of explosives parked in an industrial area of town.
“Fire in the hole!” Marines at a nearby supply base shouted, moments before a bomb squad safely detonated the truck bomb, shaking the ground throughout the city.
Marines said they caught insurgents by surprise by attacking the western half of the city and moving east. Many previous operations in the region have moved east to west toward the Syrian border. Marines found many insurgent battle positions that were built facing east and were abandoned as troops approached from their rear, they said.
Lance Cpl. Brendan Hetherman, 23, of Easton, Pa., went into the city earlier this week to find a site for a civil affairs operation that will begin as soon as the fighting ends.
“It didn’t look too bad,” Hetherman said, adding that there were plenty of buildings remaining intact to consider for the civil operations headquarters.
Many residents left the city in anticipation of the fighting, Marines said.
About 900 Iraqi residents fled their homes to a camp on the edge of the city, where Marines were providing food and shelter. It was unclear how long the camp would remain open and when the people might be able to return to their homes.
“This place has needed to be cleaned out for a while,” said Lt. Col. Dale Alford, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine regiment, one of the primary units fighting in Husaybah.