Looking for Battle, Marines Find That Foes Have Fled

Rummana residents gather around an armored vehicle destroyed by a roadside bomb during the Marine offensive.
Rummana residents gather around an armored vehicle destroyed by a roadside bomb during the Marine offensive. (Photos By Bilal Hussein -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 16, 2005

ARABI, Iraq -- Cpl. Alexander Kalouf snapped an ammunition clip into his M-16 assault rifle and strapped grenades to his chest in the crowded hold of an armored vehicle, bursting into excited snatches of songs with other Marines as they headed into hoped-for battle.

Two seats away, Cpl. Jason Dominguez shouted as he led the fighters in prayer.

"This is your chance to rid the world of these evil bastards," he began, struggling to be heard over the rumble of the Amtrac armored vehicle's engine and the roar of the exhaust.

"We ask the Lord God to help us and Jesus to protect us," Dominguez, in black sunglasses, camouflage and body armor, yelled hoarsely as huddled Marines clenched their hands and bowed their heads over the muzzles of their rifles.

Dominguez prayed for victory. He tacked on for the close: "We hope you can bring us all back alive and in one piece. Someday, when we're 50-year-old men, we'll be sitting together and telling stories about the good times."

The Marines were in the middle of Operation Matador, an assault designed to flush out and capture or kill foreign fighters who had come to Iraq to join the insurgency against the U.S. military and the Iraqi government that it supports. Severing the insurgents' network north of the Euphrates River, commanders said, would cut off the supply of guerrillas, guns and money that was moving from Syria into northwestern Iraq and being passed along for attacks in Baghdad and other cities.

But from the outset, as Marines swept west in what would be a week-long operation, scores of foreign fighters had fled ahead of them, residents of towns farther east told the Marine commanders.

After one battle May 8 that killed at least two Marines, a roadside bomb that claimed six more on Wednesday and days of fruitless hunting for the enemy, the Marines were ready for a fight. The remote village of Arabi, just two miles from the Syrian border, looked to be the place. If the Americans found Arabi in the hands of foreign fighters, said Marine Maj. Steve Lawson, commander of Lima Company in the 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, "we'll make it rubble."

On Thursday, as their column of tanks, armored vehicles and Humvees rolled into Arabi, the Marines in the Amtrac joked, checked their weapons repeatedly and sat tensely.

"There's the mosque!" shouted one of the gunners, craning out the top hatch of the dark green armored vehicle and spotting one of the places where locals said foreign fighters had made a base. The gunners held weapons ready nearby, scanning.

Minutes passed. Poised for the sounds of AK-47 assault rifle fire, bullets clinking on the metal of the armored vehicles and explosions, the Marines heard nothing. They saw no one on deserted streets.

After a half-hour in town, a gunner yelled: "There's a sheep."

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