Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Thrust and Parry

A very poorly written CNN dispatch describes an attempt by Marines to maneuver forces into Fallujah to gain positional advantage on the defenders. 

The Marines went and occupied two buildings. They were occupying those so that they could look out for suspected Iraqi insurgents. Snipers posed some positions on the other side and deeper into the city. They holed up in those buildings for about four or five hours. Then in the words of one Marine, "All hell broke loose." Iraqi insurgents had massed around the two buildings occupied by Marines, and they opened fire with mortars, with rockets, with automatic weapons fire. While we were inside that building, we saw rockets smashing into the sides of the buildings, rockets smashing through the windows.

We heard mortar rounds landing nearby, exploding and setting neighboring buildings on fire. After about an hour and a half, the Marine commander gave the order for his troops to pull back, and that they did with the help of two U.S. tanks that were also called in to assist. The Marines withdrew from two alleys and returned to one section of their base.

The firefight, though, continued for a good two hours after that. [There were] very heavy exchanges of gunfire; U.S. Marine Cobra attack helicopters were called in. They were firing off missiles, and also we're told a mortar platoon from further back in the rear was firing off 8-millimeter mortars, and those impacted in a number of buildings behind us, setting them on fire and sending plumes of black smoke into the air. Also, there was a mosque ... here; it had a minaret 50 to 60 feet high. Marine commanders say they were taking sniper fire from that minaret. That minaret has now been leveled by U.S. military ordnance, missiles and mortars. There's nothing left at all of that minaret. ...

Although the reader may shake his head at the "8-millimeter mortars" -- smaller than pistol caliber, this operation sounds much very similar to one mounted a few days previously, described in Darrin Mortensen's much more coherent account in the North County Times, though this time with less successful results.

The Marines, members of Camp Pendleton's Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, sneaked out of the houses they've occupied for nearly three weeks at 1 a.m. Saturday. They slowly and quietly crept south house to house toward a mosque where gunmen gather almost daily to lead attacks against American troops. They said their mission was originally a probe ---- a secret move behind enemy lines to check out their defenses and identify enemy positions as targets for a possible Marine offensive.

On Saturday, after inching their way through buildings and homes full of broken glass and household goods scattered on the floors after weeks of warfare, the Marines set in near the mosque and waited all day until almost dark. "It was ghostly," said Cpl. Christopher Ebert, 21, of Forest City, N.C., after he and the others arrived back in their defensive position together and safe Saturday night. "We only had about three hours to go and then these six guys showed up." After the six armed men entered the mosque, the Marines radioed what they saw to Fox Company commander Capt. Kyle Stoddard, who watched the mosque from atop a building some 400 yards away. Moments later, at 7:10 p.m., Stoddard and others listened to the burst of fire as the insurgents ran out and Marines opened fire at close range. The deadly ambush  was over in an instant. "We got 'em!" Jamison yelled. "They're dead!" 

The tank and the other squad battled back a hasty counterattack from the southeast. Insurgents fired mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and drove three vehicles down the street with gunmen firing rifles at the Marines. Two of the vehicles were disabled, and Marines said they believed their occupants were dead or wounded. Within an hour, the insurgents seemed defeated or had fled the area. The Marines said they then searched the mosque, searched the bodies, and lined them up in the street before they beat an uncontested retreat back to their positions in the north.

In both cases the Marines moved into positions under cover of darkness. In the first case, the Marines ambushed an anticoalition force before being subjected to a heavy counterattack, which they likewise defeated. In the more recent case, the Marine position was discovered and attacked. In both cases, the Marines had armor and supporting fires ready to punish the counterattack and cover a planned withdrawal. The enemy defense was in both instances based on mobile tactics, with coordinated defensive actions by teams equipped with machineguns and RPGs. Mortensen described what may have been the same battle reported by CNN.

Two Marines were killed and at least 13 more wounded in Fallujah on Monday in a bloody street battle fought close enough that the combatants tossed grenades and fired pistols at each other, officials said. ... The battle began as several recent battles have: after Marines left their lines to move deeper into the city. According to 1st Sgt. Bill Skiles, the senior noncommissioned officer of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, a platoon of about 40 Marines advanced about 200 yards beyond their lines before dawn Monday to clear buildings of snipers. After the troops sneaked into their positions, the insurgents surrounded them on three sides, Skiles said, and opened fire on the houses in which the Marines were hiding, getting close enough to toss grenades through the windows.

He said the Marines were also pinned down by rebel snipers shooting from several buildings, including a nearby mosque that was later demolished by tank fire. "They waited a few hours after we went in and then they attacked," said a stunned and angry Skiles several hours after the fighting Monday, staring off and shaking his head slowly from side to side as he repeated his words: "They waited, and then they attacked." Duty and Skiles said most of the Marines killed or wounded Monday were hit with shrapnel from grenades tossed by rebels into open windows. At least two of the Marines were also shot, said Duty, whose boots were black with the blood of his comrades as he recounted the fight. Duty said he had to fire his pistol at gunmen just to get into the building where Marines lay bleeding, still fighting off insurgents, some of whom were only 10 yards away.

In terms of the number of men involved, Marine casualties were heavy, with 2 KIA and 13 wounded out of 40. The enemy adapted to the probing tactics by mounting even heavier mobile counterattacks, probably in company plus strength, supported by sniper fire. Both the Marine attack and the enemy defense have followed the anticipated pattern.

The Marines will probably exploit the uncoverable yardage of Fallujah to feint from several directions, essentially forcing the defense to continuously run around within the perimeter. They can feint continuously, especially during the hours of darkness. Anyone who has experienced running around nighttime streets knows that unit cohesion will gradually evaporate and bits of equipment will be mislaid. And then there may be long-range fire from American assets. Because the Marines have the initiative, they can enforce a rest plan while Anti-coalition forces cannot. A semi-mobile Grozny style defense will probably not work in Fallujah; it will wear out against a cunning, fencing Marine Corps. At some point, the enemy will feel the need to pull into a continuously defended, but shrunken perimeter.

Mortensen's earlier story indicated the Marines were returning to positions north; since it is known that they already hold positions south it seems clear that the enemy is now squeezed from two sides and is probably contained in the northeast corner of Fallujah, an area full of meandering streets and mosques. The enemy would prefer a linear American advance, hoping as in the case of Jenin, to mine buildings and blow them up as Americans occupy them. Not wanting to oblige, the USMC is mounting relatively small probes forcing the enemy to react. The current Marine strategy is ripping up the mobile defense. The company plus unit which attacked the platoon is probably no more. However, it will not be long before the enemy must retreat into a continuous perimeter, as his manpower dwindles to the point where a mobile defense is no longer viable. The remaining enemy forces are probably in the battalion plus range. And then the ghost of the Shuri line will rear up, in which there were no other option but to go directly into the teeth of the defense. The density of the defense displayed in the recent encounter may mean that time is near.

The important thing to know now, and Marine commanders are probably working to find out, is where the enemy plans his last stand. When that is prepared, the enemy will probably abandon most of the territory he now holds and collapse his remaining manpower into the stronghold. During that withdrawal he will be somewhat vulnerable, although the presence of civilians frustratingly precludes any kind of aggressive pursuit even when the retreat is underway. There, in that redoubt, he will present the whole panoply of mined buildings, IEDs, strongpoints, spider-holes and pillboxes, all in continous and interlocking line. Then there will be nothing for it but to reduce it by overwhelming fire.

The analogy of the Shuri may be especially apt, since it was on Okinawa that a large number of civilians were caught in the battle and whole families jumped from cliffs in obedience to the dictates of their Emperor rather than surrender. From the fighting up till now, it also seems likely that the enemy at Fallujah, probably stiffened by hard core jihadis, will fight to the last like Imperial Japanese Army and will take as many civilians as possible with them. It was probably in anticipation of this that the US has made special efforts to create a negotiation process. Although much maligned, the links with community elders is probably the only hope for averting a large number of potential civilian deaths.

In the end it is possible that the US will have the worst of both worlds. It lost the opportunity to "bag" large numbers of the enemy when it slowed down the pace of operations on Fallujah, allowing them a slower tempo to adjust their lines. And in the end, it may have to inflict hundreds or thousands of civilian deaths as the Jihadis fight to the last. But in exchange, the slowdown destroyed the political momentum of those who had hoped to provoke a widespread insurgency all over Iraq and provided an opportunity for thousands of civilians to move into areas of the city which have been unaffected by the fighting. History will tell whether the gamble was worth it. But now that the US has chosen a slow tempo of attack, with all its drawbacks, it may fairly claim all its benefits in compensation. Because the jihadi enemy has no offensive capability left, the US can even enlist starvation as a siege weapon or resort to hostage rescue tactics such lacing the water supply with emetics or using see-through-the-wall technologies in the final stages to whittle the enemy down.

In the terrible calculus of urban warfare, in which thousands of lives have historically been expended for negligible yardage, the USMC has done very well, despite the complications of the campaign. (At Jenin the IDF lost 23 men for 47 enemy in a much smaller area. The total enemy force was estimated at 250 and did not have the mortars, machineguns and even anti-aircraft weapons present in Fallujah.) The enemy has boasted that he will repel the Marines like the Sixth Army at Stalingrad  -- no chance of that -- but the final and hardest chapters remain to be written.

Fallujah Update

An AC-130 struck two sites in Fallujah about 150 meters apart resulting in secondary explosions. It is possible that the USMC, after probing consecutively, has thrown the enemy a curve ball and attacked the mustering sites where the Jihadis were briefing and arming their mobile task groups for the night, the locations deduced from movement patterns gleaned from previous engagements. The other possibility is that the USMC has identified preparations for the final redoubt and struck at their magazines. The creation of a continuous enemy line would require consolidating munitions, especially explosives, into the defensive area to wire it up completely. The distance of 150 meters between attack points is consistent with a defensive area about 300 yards square. The loss of munitions is irreplaceable to the enemy and probably reduces their effectiveness as much as attrition in men.

If the Marines follow up, the enemy may be forced to continue a plan now in shambles right over a cliff. Hence, it is possible the enemy will develop a sudden appetite for a truce to gain time to rebuild their scattered positions. Alternatively the Marines themselves could ease up the tempo, handing the enemy another unexpected change of pace, to haul more civilians out of the area and snipe at the stragglers as they regroup. Either that or launch more and possibly multidirectional probes. The enemy has no good moves left, only the evil choices of continuing a mobile defense with dwindling numbers and weapons or consolidation in a bastion with much a much reduced magazine capacity. Of course, the trapped men are probably hoping for a diversionary attack from their cohorts in the rest of the Sunni triangle, but that is a forlorn expectation. Killing those four Blackwater contractors was an expensive proposition.