Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Western Road

A Washingon Post article describes two separate engagements in Iraq in which 24 insurgents were killed. The first involved ground and air attacks which killed a dozen men believed associated with Abu Musab Zarqawi.

unidentified U.S. forces traced what were believed to be members of a Zarqawi cell to a tent and a shed in the desert of the remote, largely uncontrolled Qaim district, east of the Syrian border, the U.S. military said. Twelve of the men were killed in firefights and at least one airstrike, the military said. A 6-year-old Iraqi girl was wounded.

Not far from Qaim, a US helicopter was damaged by ground fire from unidentified forces engaged in fighting near Husabayah. No Americans were killed. (Qaim was formerly the site of a uranium yellowcake plant.) The Washington Post says that "the helicopter crew had been monitoring a gun battle between two unidentified groups when the battling sides spotted the helicopter and turned their fire on it". In a separate action,  Marines killed 12 attackers on a checkpoint in the town of Ramadi.

Qaim, Husabayah, Ramadi: what these three engagements engagements have in common is that they all took place on the westbound road from Baghdad to the Syrian border.

It's all old ground. Husabayah or Qusabayah as it is sometimes called for example, was where a US Marine border outpost was attacked all day in early April by about 100 insurgents, including a fire truck converted into a bomb. Steve Fainaru of the Washington Post described the incident vividly:

HUSAYBAH, Iraq -- Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Butler shook himself from the rubble of a suicide truck bombing. He staggered to the ledge of his three-story guard tower and stared into a cloud of white smoke. Butler, 21, of Altoona, Pa., was temporarily deafened by the blast, but he recalled what came next with cinematic clarity. The white smoke parted to reveal a clean red fire engine. It sped past a mural bidding travelers "Goodbye From Free Iraq" and hurtled directly toward Butler, who shot at the fire engine until it exploded about 40 yards away from him.

From the Syrian border, moving eastward towards Baghdad, lie a string of towns along the Euphrates through which foreign fighters and insurgents move back and forth into Iraq. The Chicago Tribune's James Janega talks about the effort of 9 Marine battalions to control the vast swath of territory along this river road. The 'hook' of Janega's story revolved around an engagement in Haqlaniyah, a town about about halfway between the Syrian border and Baghdad where Marines employed a swarming tactic to engulf insurgents who had taken on a four Humvee unit. The unit, Kabar-6, had itself been pursuing a vehicle that had fired on a civil affairs patrol some time earlier and which had fled into a redoubt.

The reaction to the April 20 fight on the outskirts of Haqlaniyah may be a sign of things to come in Anbar province, the restive desert territory west of Baghdad where American military officials believe insurgents and foreign fighters gather, train and then move into the rest of Iraq. Hundreds of troops were directed at Haqlinayah soon after trouble started ... While the idea to swarm enemy fighters is not new to the Marines in Iraq, it is rare that they do it fast enough for more than a few dozen Marines to shoot back at the fighters, let alone to surround the fast-moving insurgency. ... Because several smaller units near Haqlaniyah were ready for other missions April 20, nearly 200 troops from the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines were able to respond to the shootout there within the first hour. The troops remained in town for the next three days.

The Marines eventually captured 40 suspected enemy, explosive, documents and weapons at Haqlinayah. The other engagement mentioned in the Washington Post article is Ramadi, where 12 insurgents were killed in checkpoint attack; it takes us further along the river road to Baghdad's western approaches. The map below (hat tip: DL) shows how Ramadi marks start of a series of infamous towns along the river road which eventually lead to Baghdad.


Qaim, Husabayah, Haqlinayah  and Ramadi. This series of foreign-sounding battlefield names when laid out on a map becomes the visible path of the insurgency and their supporting foreign fighters, with one end beginning at the Syrian border and the other terminating in Baghdad. As the Chicago Tribune describes it:

Nine battalions now hold an area where 13 battalions had been stationed until February. In northern Anbar province, which includes Haqlaniyah, about 3,000 Marines are stretched among outposts in an area the size of South Carolina.


This isn't to say that all fighters are pouring down from Syria, but does illustrate how the organism of the insurgency has one root within the Sunni populated riverine area and draws additional sustenance from roots reaching across the border. One of the reasons that most US troops are deployed in Northern Iraq is because that is where much of the enemy is.