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Marines Widen Their Net South of Baghdad

Troops Say Offensive Is Vastly Different From Urban Warfare in Fallujah

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page A20

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq, Nov. 27 -- Through the scattered towns and along the dangerous roads of an area that one commander described as "kind of like the worst place in the world," U.S. Marines, British soldiers and Iraqi security forces are waging an offensive they say is vastly different from the urban warfare waged elsewhere in Iraq in recent weeks.

Unlike the massive military push into the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, or similar assaults on Samarra or Mosul, the operation here in Babil province has involved few firefights. It consists mostly of gathering intelligence and launching raids on homes and suspected weapons caches. Insurgents here are not clustered in urban neighborhoods but scattered over wide areas of what many Iraqis call the "triangle of death."

A driver catches some sleep in Babil before the departure of a supply convoy. (Jackie Spinner -- The Washington Post)

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"We have to go out and hunt them down," said Col. Ron Johnson, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is conducting Operation Plymouth Rock, so called because it started around Thanksgiving.

Beginning on Tuesday, a combined force of more than 5,000 U.S., British and Iraqi troops has mounted raids in a region south of Baghdad that resulted in the detention of more than 130 people. Most recently, the troops have targeted the dusty town of Yusufiyah, where 856 projectiles were discovered, the U.S. military said.

Officers say those numbers do not reflect the actual scope of the operation. U.S. military officials estimate that they could be fighting as many as 6,000 insurgents in the region, most of them disgruntled and unemployed local residents. Among them are said to be former members of the Republican Guard, a key element of Saddam Hussein's disbanded Iraqi military.

Johnson said the strategic importance of northern Babil stems from its geographic location along major transportation arteries that link Baghdad with southern Iraq and also extend west to Fallujah and beyond. "It's a natural line of drift" for insurgents, he said.

"The problem is all roads lead to Latifiyah," Johnson said, referring to a town near the center of the region.

At least 32 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the region in recent months, executed at illegal checkpoints the insurgents have set up, Johnson said. "These are bad guys," he said. "They don't care who they kill."

In an office in Latifiyah that used to belong to the city's police chief, Ishmael Jubouri contended that the insurgents in Babil cared deeply about what they were doing.

Jubouri, a member of a prominent Sunni tribe from an area south of Baghdad, is the leader of the Islamic Army in Iraq, one of the armed groups that the Americans and their allies are trying to defeat. The walls of his office are adorned with portraits of rebels killed in fights with U.S. forces, and banners hung around the former police station call for a holy war against the Americans.

Jubouri said the Islamic Army, which has kidnapped and executed Iraqi security troops, had thousands of fighters trying to force foreign troops out of the country. "The members of the army believe in the language of weapons," he said.

The Islamic Army, he said, sent a contingent of its fighters to Fallujah but withdrew them about a week ago as U.S. and Iraqi forces reestablished control of the city.

"Fallujah was a mistake because it is not possible to fight in a city," he said. "We want to open more than one front in the same time to disrupt the U.S. forces and defeat them at once. The Latifiyah battle will be more successful than Fallujah because we learn from the mistakes done by our brothers there."

Jubouri said there were few foreigners among the Islamic Army fighters. "The Americans think that everyone who fights is foreign," he said. "In fact, everyone who fights is an Iraqi. We have Kurds, Arabs, Shiites and Sunnis."

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