Marines from L Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, pause along a berm while taking part in Operation Northern Forge, a mission designed to deny the safe havens on the north side of the Euphrates River to insurgents.
By entering a known insurgent safe haven, they severely dented the capabilities of the anti-Iraqi forces in the area. They found and destroyed hundreds of weapons, IED making materials, and explosives designed to kill Coalition Forces, Iraqi Security Forces and innocent civilians. (photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher Zahn)
ALBU BALI, Iraq – Insurgents in Iraq"s notorious Al Anbar Province are finding out the hard way that there is no such thing as a safe haven from the reach of Coalition Forces.
For several months, insurgents have attacked with hit-and run-tactics, using the Euphrates River as a natural obstacle. They infiltrate across the river with small caches, attack across a large swath of the southern Euphrates River Valley and then withdraw north of the river to rest and refit for their next attack.
Operation Northern Forge, conducted by Marines from 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, March 5 to 17, was designed to deny the enemy this tactic.
"The mission for Northern Forge was to disrupt insurgents north of the river," said Capt. Ryan J. Erisman, 32, from Assumption, Ill. His unit, Lima Company, was the battalion"s main effort for the operation. "These guys were using that (area) as a safe haven to rest, refit and then attack into our battle space south of the river, or into Ramadi or Fallujah."
The operation began on a clear night as the "Teufelhunden" battalion"s amphibious warriors inserted by boat onto the northern banks of the Euphrates. The next 12 days were filled with constant patrols, digging up weapons caches and sleeping in different locations every night. They were taking the fight to the enemy, actively seeking both the forces and the supplies that fuel the insurgency.
They eagerly looked forward to every mission because they knew the results would benefit their brothers on the south side of the river. This was a combined effort from the start designed to produce a far-reaching effect across the whole area of operations.
It didn"t take long for the Marines to start producing significant results. It seemed every reed line or orchard held a weapons cache that was quickly discovered thanks to the observant eyes of the Marines on patrol. They developed a natural instinct for finding caches, often merely looking at a canal or reed line and thinking it might be a good place to hide something. Sometimes the key is learning to think like the enemy; this perspective paid off.
In one cache alone they found over 100 mortar rounds, an amount described as "unbelievable" by Cpl. Steve D. Whiteman, a 28-year-old squad leader from Cincinnati.
"The engineers attached to me for the operation said that they found more ordnance and more caches, IEDs (and IED making materials) in the first seven days than they had previously found in seven months," added Erisman, the commanding officer of L Company.
The Marines had found hundreds of pounds of explosives, artillery and mortar shells, dozens of weapons systems and a vast assortment of materials to make improvised explosive devices. It was very rewarding to discover and destroying such large amounts of weapons meant to harm Coalition Forces, Iraqi Security Forces and innocent civilians.
"I enjoy doing my job," said Cpl. Steven C. Szopa, 28, from Columbia, Mo. "Whenever we do it right it always makes me feel good."
The Marines did not stay in any one location for long; the key to L Company"s success was day and night patrolling and resting only briefly. They depended on the local populace to help them, something the civilians seemed eager to do.
"The people welcomed us into their houses with open arms," said Lance Cpl. William R. Ellis, 20, Montgomery, Ala. "They felt safer with us around. They knew if we were in their house no one would attack them."
At the end of the operation, it was evident that a serious dent was made in the enemy"s capability to affect coalition activity south of the Euphrates. By entering a known safe haven for insurgents, L Company eliminated an immense amount of resources that would be used to attack Coalition Forces, and thus severely disrupted enemy activity.
The Marines, despite the long patrols, tiring work and sleepless nights would gladly undertake another mission like this, they said. The comments of Szopa, the squad leader for 1st squad, 3rd platoon echo the sentiments of many.
"Anything that will slow the enemy down and take away their ability to set up IEDs and to do harm to Coalition Forces I definitely want to be a part of," he said.
While it remains to be seen whether or not the enemy will return to this area north of the Euphrates, and what the long-term impacts of the surge will be, one thing is certain: If the insurgents return, L Company and the Teufelhunden Battalion will be ready to confront them wherever they appear.