Dispatch September 2007

The First Test of the Surge

We are about to find out what happens in Iraq after the U.S. troops leave

Bush at Al Assad Air Base

On September 3, President Bush secretly flew into Al Assad Air Base in Anbar Province, 70 miles northwest of Baghdad, to meet with Prime Minister Maliki. According to press reports,  Bush deliberately chose Assad rather than Baghdad for the meeting  to make the point that if an accord can be reached among fighters here—in what was formerly the toughest area in Iraq—then surely the Iraqi government, secure in the American-fortified Green Zone, should be able to move toward reconciliation as well.

In a few days, Maliki is expected to return to Anbar from Baghdad with a pledge of long-overdue funds for the province and an agreement to include more Sunni tribesmen in the police and the army. (Until now, Maliki had objected that Sunni participation in the Anbar security forces might lead to the formation of Sunni militias.)  But what Anbar really needs is not just a local constabulary, but a well-supported Iraqi military force—a necessity that Maliki hasn’t shown that he’s willing to support. 

The province, after all, has been a Wild West of sorts. In 2005, a relatively small number of al-Qaeda moved from city to city in Anbar, systematically intimidating one tribe after another. To the north and east of al Assad stretches a vast, arid region within Anbar Province loosely called Thar Thar—a mishmash of scrubby farms, roadside stands, and tire-repair shops servicing two highways leading toward Samarra to the east and Jordan to the northwest. It is 2,500 square kilometers of rocks, dust, and ravines, dotted by stubborn palm trees that refuse to die under the blistering heat. In the summer, temperatures soar to 120 degrees. Most of the population lives near the main highways.

Untouched by the U.S. military since the 2003 invasion, Thar Thar was al-Qaeda’s last refuge in Anbar. Only since April—after Marine generals James Mattis and Walt Gaskin persuaded General Petraeus and Admiral Fallon, in charge of Central Command, to send the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) to Anbar in support of Petraeus’s surge strategy—has the area gradually been brought under control.

Colonel Sam Mundy, the commander of the MEU, was tasked with clearing a 50-square kilometer area—larger than San Diego County. In one incident, as al-Qaeda fled before the oncoming marines, they strapped a man to a tractor tire, set it on fire, and rolled it down the road—a warning that when they returned a similar fate awaited anyone else they suspected of being an informer. Knowing that al-Qaeda had planted hundreds of improvised explosive devices and pressure mines, the marines spent the next five months walking every foot of the highways, removing 150 tons of explosives from houses, culverts, and buried caches. Six marines were lost to mines and snipers as they got the job done.

Flash forward to September 3, 2007. At the same time that President Bush was cajoling Maliki, Colonel Mundy was driving me around his battle space. We covered 160 kilometers in eight hours, stopping at three outposts. At each, I was greeted by marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, whom I had last seen during the 2004 battle for Fallujah. It was their third rotation back into Iraq.

Combat Outpost Golden in Anbar Province (Photo by Bing West)

We stopped first at Combat Outpost Golden, a bleak, treeless earth redoubt with a half dozen wooden huts and a line of tents. The brown dust, fine as powder, was so thick it flowed over the top of our boots. Every step raised clouds of it, golden in the blazing sun.

“Took us a few weeks to get showers in here,” Mundy said. “The marines looked like the cartoon character Pigpen. They’d sweat, and the dust would stick in layers they had to peel off to recognize one another. It’s grimy out here.”

Inside a hut, we met the commander of the Iraqi 2d Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Division, charged with replacing the marines when they leave in a week. A tall, imposing man, Brigadier General Ali Ghazi was a former member of the Republican Guard who had fought the Americans in Kuwait in 1991.

Ghazi explained that he could not possibly hold the area the marines had cleared. When Colonel Mundy left, he feared, his support would drop like a rock.

“In four years, the MOD [Ministry of Defense] has given my soldiers one uniform each. Last month, I got 300 boots for 600 soldiers. I’m supposed to give each soldier one boot? I drive eight hours to Baghdad to get my soldiers’ pay. Last week, I drove to Basra for gas,” he said. “We need water and food. Who gives it us? Colonel Mundy. My soldier gets killed here, it is ignored. Not like you Americans. The government doesn’t even know the 2d Brigade is out here in the desert.”

Presented by

A former marine and former assistant secretary of defense, Bing West is in Iraq on his 13th visit. He is writing his third book about the war.

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