THE first mortar shell fell close to a solitary shack on a bluff overlooking the Euphrates river. The second exploded a few yards from a parked US Marine Humvee armoured vehicle full of officers directing construction of a pontoon bridge that was intended to carry US forces across the river into the insurgent-infested desert close to Iraq’s border with Syria.
The marines scrambled into the shack for cover. There was more fire, apparently from the nearby town of Ubaydi behind them on their side of the river. The bridge-building plan was forgotten. What was needed, said Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Mundy of the 3rd Marine Battalion, was a “movement to enemy”.
Taken by surprise as they attempted to launch Operation Matador — billed as the biggest offensive against insurgent fighters since the crackdown on Falluja last November — the marines moved swiftly to counter-attack last Sunday in a town they had previously regarded as harmless. They had no idea of the fury that faced them.
The marines of Lima company advanced on Ubaydi from the north. A platoon from Kilo company worked around from the south. Both units met heavy fire. A rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the amphibious vehicle carrying the Kilo company commander.
Helicopter gunships were called in, but the resistance continued. “You could hear the ping of bullets off our vehicle,” said James Janega, a Chicago Tribune reporter with the unit. “Our heavy machinegun was firing back. It was a sweltering day. The gunships were firing rockets at nearby positions but the bullets kept coming in return.”
On the northern side of town, Sergeant Chuck Hurley and his Lima company platoon fought their way through the streets, at one point coming under fire from insurgents on the roof of a mosque. Several houses cleared by the marines were packed with weapons and explosives.
At the last house on one street, the marines found the front door locked. For the past year coalition troops have been kicking down doors and storming into houses across Iraq. Sometimes they find signs of insurgent activity; often they find they have made a mistake.
The last thing the Lima platoon expected was the firefight that awaited them. The ferocious battle that erupted in a single-storey house in northwestern Iraq proved the kind of deadly urban encounter that coalition troops had feared but rarely endured on their advance into Baghdad two years ago.
The lethal tactics displayed by the insurgents in Ubaydi showed how vulnerable the US and British-led effort in Iraq remains to a nimble and well-armed enemy. Last week insurgents across Iraq killed more than 100 people. Yet it was a battle the insurgents lost that may have worried coalition commanders most.
A burst of machinegun fire greeted the first two marines through the door of the Ubaydi house. One was injured, the other fatally wounded. Then a rocket-propelled grenade blasted through the door, fired from somewhere inside the house. The marines heard screams of “Allahu Akbar” — God is greatest.
The men of Lima company rushed for cover. They were forced to leave their wounded comrades lying where they fell. Moments later two insurgents were seen running from the back of the house. Both were shot and killed, and the marines gingerly re-entered, thinking the house must now be empty.
According to Ellen Knickmeyer, a Washington Post reporter with the unit, Sergeant Dennis Woullard pulled one of the injured men to safety while the rest of the platoon began a search of the house. One marine began to open the door of what appeared to be a storage cupboard. Then the floor erupted with flying metal.
Insurgents hidden below the concrete floor started spraying the room above with armour-piercing bullets that blasted upwards through the house, shattering ceilings and exterior walls. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said Woullard. “No one’s ever seen or heard of guys getting attacked from under a house.”
Amid more screams of “Allahu Akbar”, the concealed insurgents forced the marines to retreat, once again without their wounded comrade, who would later be recovered dead. The marines fired back into the house but they lacked heavy-calibre ammunition that could penetrate the walls and floors.
Time passed as the soldiers regrouped. Another effort was made to retrieve the body but it was once again repelled by heavy machinegun fire.
The marines concluded that the insurgents had built a bunker under the house, and the only way to destroy it was to call in a tank. When it arrived the tank fired a round into the house, igniting a propane container that engulfed part of the building in flames. The tank’s heavy cannon fired seven rounds in all, several of them bunker-busting shells.
When the dust settled and the flames went out, there was silence in the house. The marines waited, then cautiously advanced. Woullard said later “nobody should have survived” the tank barrage. Yet the moment the marines neared the door, an insurgent’s machinegun opened fire again.
As darkness fell, the marines called in air support. An F/A-18 attack plane dropped a pair of bombs; according to Knickmeyer, one missed the house and the other failed to explode.
It was not until daylight on Monday that the marines were able to set up a rocket position to collapse the remaining walls of the house on top of the insurgents’ bunker. On the marines’ fifth approach, there was no returning fire.
The “bunker” turned out to be little more than a crawl space beneath the thin concrete floor. The marines could see the bodies of at least two insurgents, both foreign-looking, but were reluctant to move them in case they were booby-trapped. They dropped a grenade into the crawl space to be sure there were no survivors.
Had Saddam Hussein’s troops shown a fraction of the guts of the unknown fighters in Ubaydi, Baghdad might never have fallen, one of the marines noted later. “This is a determined enemy,” said Lieutenant-General James Conway, a senior Pentagon commander. “He has the skill and the weapons to be able to resist fiercely, as we’re seeing here.”
By the end of the week resistance melted away as Operation Matador continued through small towns along the Euphrates and the western desert. Yet it was far from clear that the coalition could claim a significant military success.
The operation launched in Anbar province last Sunday involved 1,000 marines and soldiers with extensive air support. Its aim was to purge insurgent elements from an isolated area where intelligence had shown increasing rebel activity since the loss of their bases in Falluja.
Pentagon officials are convinced that a steady stream of suicide bombers and other foreign fighters are entering the area from Syria.
There were also reported sightings of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist leader, who was said to have been treated for serious wounds at a hospital in the city of Ramadi. A hospital doctor claimed he was bleeding heavily when he arrived with three men last Wednesday. He was driven away after refusing to be admitted for further treatment.
Coalition commanders last night claimed that at least 125 insurgents had been killed and 39 suspects detained during Operation Matador. Numerous civilians were also caught up in the fighting.
At one Baghdad hospital, an Iraqi woman described how her left leg had been amputated without anaesthetic after a missile fired from a US Apache helicopter exploded near her in Saadah. “I was walking back to my house when the next minute I was on the ground unable to move. When I saw that part of my leg was blown off I started to scream,” Um Ahmad said.
The helicopter returned to strafe the street with machinegun fire. “I started to wave and shout that I am an old woman, not Zarqawi,” she said. The nearest hospital had been destroyed in earlier bombing, so she was taken to a house used by local doctors. After the operation she was taken to Baghdad.
American officers acknowledged that they may merely have succeeded in redistributing insurgents to other parts of the desert. Some, like Zarqawi, are suspected of hopping across the 350-mile Syrian border when danger threatens. Um Ahmad’s son said insurgents in Saadah had left the day before US troops arrived, apparently given plenty of warning once military convoys began heading their way.
British and American officers are currently training up to 3,500 Iraqi troops to take on border duties, and commanders argue that with US backup they should be able to restrict insurgent movements across a broad swathe of desert.
“We are focusing our attention on what we call the ratlines — basically smuggling routes and places where (insurgents) could be hiding,” said Marine Colonel Bob Chase. Yet a senior source in Washington noted that the operation may prove no more effective than the Falluja offensive was — despite claims by at least one US general last November that the back of the insurgency had been broken.
“This time no one’s going to claim that the insurgency is over,” the source said. “But it’s one more place in Iraq where these guys can’t squat and plot, and that means quite a lot.”
Certainly nobody in the Lima platoon is likely to think the battle over. It lost two men in the fight for Ubaydi, with five more wounded. Two days later the remaining members of the platoon were driving through the village of Haban, on the north bank of the Euphrates, when an improvised explosive device erupted under their half-track armoured vehicle.
The explosion destroyed the vehicle and killed four marines. The war the coalition largely avoided when Baghdad fell two years ago has yet to be won in the barren deserts of Iraq. oGunmen assassinated the director-general of the Iraqi foreign ministry last night. Jassim Mohammed Ghani was shot as he stood outside his home in western Bahgdad.