HIT, IRAQ – Walking in from the desert before dawn, the marines entering
the ancient city of Hit bristled with armaments.
Flak jackets bulged with extra ammo clips. Packs were heavy with spare mortar
rounds and grenades. Many of the men recalled the last time they entered the city
in October, calling it a miracle that none was killed in a determined insurgent
Yet pulling out of the city five days later, every one of those mortars and
grenades remained intact. The 250 marines, most from Bravo Company of the 1st
Marine Division's 23rd Regiment out of Houston, had fired fewer than 100 rifle
rounds. There were few signs of the fighters that made Forward Operating Base
Hit one of the most mortared US positions in Iraq.
It was much the same story in a recent Marine offensive across Anbar Province,
the center of Iraq's insurgency. As part of "River Blitz," Marines
took over trouble-spots like Hit, Haditha, Baghdadi, and Ramadi with hardly
any shots being fired.
But from the upper ranks to the most junior boots on the ground, few believe
the relative ease of this operation means the insurgency in Anbar is over. Instead,
the militants are fleeing before the marines arrive, only to return when the
marines withdraw. The temporary nature of the Marine takeovers is hampering
US efforts to get local cooperation on security.
"They called it River Blitz, but it's been more like operation River Dance,''
says Sgt. Bob Grandfield, from Boston. "This is what insurgents are supposed
to do. Run away when we come in. If they fight, they know we'll just kill them."
"They're very perceptive, not stupid at all, and they probably saw tanks
were moved here. So they left,'' says Lt. Col Stephen Dinauer from Verona, Wisc,
commander of the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, which headed up
operations in Hit. "It's frustrating, because we can't be everywhere at
While acknowledging that most top insurgents probably fled prior to the assault,
Colonel Dinauer still rates operations in Hit (pronounced Heat) a success. About
40 men were detained, and a number of weapons caches were uncovered. He also
believes that insurgents in the area have been "knocked back on their heels,"
preventing them from planning more attacks and making it easier to move troops
around the province.
But while Marines conducted their offensive in Anbar, insurgents struck elsewhere.
A suicide car bomb in Hilla, south of Baghdad, killed 125 people - the deadliest
single attack since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Wednesday, unknown gunmen
in Baghdad shot and killed a judge involved in the trial of Mr. Hussein.
As the Marines involved in "River Blitz" pull out Anbar Province,
a smaller US force is replacing them. One senior marine said he feels "guilty
about leaving" Hit because he worries that insurgents will seek reprisals
on residents in the absence of local police.
These sentiments echo the scaled-back expectations among troops on the ground.
Gone is the talk about breaking the back of the insurgency that was floated
before the November battle for Fallujah, where hundreds of militants were dug
in and ready to fight.
Instead, the troops speak about a long, painstaking process of intelligence
gathering, slowly constricting the corridor along the Euphrates river that has
helped foreign militants move into Iraq from Syria and helped domestic militants
move men and money.
And they speak about slowly finding a way to train and motivate Iraqi troops
to replace the largely failed experiment with the Iraqi National Guard, which
has been plagued by desertions, insurgent infiltration, and a refusal to fight
because of fears of reprisals against their family members.
Patrolling Hit, a city of 100,000 people, the marines encountered no open hostility.
Little boys fascinated by their guns chased after them and young men peppered
them with questions in broken English. In five days in the city, one sniper
was killed by the marines, and another man was killed after a drive by shooting.
In Anbar Province, that's about as quiet as it gets.
But there is also little open or obvious cooperation. Just about an hour before
the drive-by shooting, the owner of a house occupied by a team of marines was
asked about insurgent activity in the area. "There is no resistance in
the entire city of Hit,'' he said. "They left a long time ago."
In a brief meeting with marines to arrange the recovery of two insurgent bodies,
a local sheikh told Maj. Derek Horst, "99.9 percent of our people are peaceful
people. We don't want problems here."
Such reticence either masks sympathies with the insurgency, or more commonly
fear of reprisals. Last October, insurgents moved into the city, reduced the
police station to rubble, and beheaded a few locals they deemed too close to
US forces. The city's police remain inactive.
Yet as marines left the meeting, another with long experience in the Hit area
could hardly detain his disgust. "This guy is one of our biggest problems
here. In the past, he's been whipping people up to fight."
In some cities in Anbar, civilians have been killed for simply talking to Marines,
and more than a few citizens of Hit on this trip told marine officers that they
should either come into the city and stay, or don't come at all, because there
are no guarantees of their safety when the troops leave.
The marines say they appreciate civilian fears, but are frustrated that locals
don't secure their towns on their own. "It's hard to understand sometimes
why people don't stand up for themselves,'' says Sergeant Shawn Hudman of Austin,