NEW OBEIDI, IRAQ - Last fall, US Marines swept through Qaim, a cluster of towns and villages along the Euphrates River, and wrested control from foreign jihadists.
Over the years and throughout Iraq, the Americans have followed up similar successes by returning to large bases miles from the nearest major town…
That distance allowed insurgents to return and regroup.
But in this region of about 80,000 people near the Syrian border, the marines have stayed. Under the command of Lt. Col. Julian Alford, they followed up Operation Steel Curtain by spreading out over a dozen small bases inside towns and along major roads. Lt. Col. Nick Marano and his marines took over in Qaim earlier this year and are using the strategy to push into towns and villages that are seeing an American presence for the first time.
That presence has helped the Americans prevent insurgents from reestablishing a large-scale presence in the area. This spring, marines are building more new bases in the rural areas east of the major towns here.
“If you don’t go looking for them, you’re not going to find them,” says Col. W. Blake Crowe, whose command in western Anbar Province includes Qaim. He says that Qaim is “the model for where they want us to go.”
The assumption in most of Iraq is that keeping American forces in population centers fuels the insurgency and increases American casualties. In Qaim, the result has been the opposite.
While insurgents are more active now than they were in the immediate aftermath of Steel Curtain, marines returning for a second deployment say they no longer face the constant threat of mortar attacks, gunfights, and well-organized insurgent ambushes.
“Especially compared to last year, this area is a lot better,” says Capt. Greg Jones, of Charleston, S.C., who commands a company of Marines in eastern Qaim. “We’re not getting mortared - we’re not getting [attacked] in the streets.”
New counterinsurgency strategies seemed beside the point earlier this year, as speculation mounted that the US military would begin substantial troop withdrawals. But the insurgency has proved its resilience in Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital, and an additional brigade is on its way to reinforce the Americans in western Iraq.
Marines here differ over whether the strategy would work elsewhere in Iraq. In Qaim, the insurgency became dominated by foreign fighters whose brutality and imposition of conservative Islam alienated powerful local sheikhs.
In areas where the insurgency enjoys local support - or where, as in Ramadi, the insurgency is strong enough to terrorize and assassinate leaders - putting Americans out among Iraqi civilians may be impossible.
But in Qaim, marines under Colonel Marano, a Philadelphia native, are expanding a strategy they say is working. Targeting an area they say is a staging ground for insurgent attacks in Qaim’s larger towns, 1st battalion, 7th Marines, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., have begun moving men into villages where no Americans have patrolled since US troops arrived in Iraq three years ago.
The big base at Qaim once bustled with an entire marine battalion, but now more than three-quarters of the men live in battle positions named for famous Marine Corps fights such as Iwo Jima and Tripoli.
Some of the positions along highways or in rural areas were built from scratch by Marine engineers. Men sleep on wooden planks and work in offices with massive earthen barriers for walls. Some of the buildings bear the scars of warfare. At all the battle positions, the marines live and patrol with Iraqi Army soldiers.
A group of Captain Jones’s marines and a unit of Iraqi soldiers live in a small compound in the center of New Obeidi, a town in Qaim.
When Sgt. Cesar Larrea steps out the front gate, he and his squad are immediately among Iraqis. The Miami native, like the other marines here, patrols the streets of the small town and through farmland where sheep roam among small stone houses.
He and his men have learned the area and are alert to anything that seems out of place. After their patrols, the men trade observations on anything they noticed that seemed unusual or suspicious.
“You know your area,” Sergeant Larrea says. “who lives in it, who’s new, who came into town.”
Some residents pass information to the marines; some refuse to speak with them. Larrea says that locals have approached to tell him or his men about strange vehicles or unrecognized visitors in the area.
Jones, echoing other marines, says he did not believe the US can completely eliminate the insurgency. The goal is to hand over responsibility for fighting it to Iraqi government forces. Keeping the level of violence down is a vital element of recruiting and training Iraqis as a counterinsurgency force.
“That’s what we’re looking at. Keep the area secure enough,” Jones says. “As long as the insurgency is at that level, I think the [Iraqi police and Army] will be fine.”