Attacks Rock 'Foundation' That Marines Built in Anbar

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 7, 2006

HIT, Iraq, Feb. 6 -- The troops of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit had every reason to feel a sense of accomplishment. Violence in this ancient town along the western Euphrates River had dropped sharply since their arrival. They were only a few days from heading home. And they had not lost a single Marine during two months in Iraq's most dangerous province.

Until Monday. Word spread around the 22nd's main camp, among those who had stayed awake late to watch the Super Bowl: Five Marines were hit about 1:30 a.m. while driving in an armored Humvee. It was a roadside bomb. They were unconscious.

In the morning, the Marines learned that three of their comrades were dead.

The 2,300 troops of the 22nd, many of whom are veterans of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, are familiar with war and its consequences. But their tour in Hit, a city of 30,000 to 40,000 in Iraq's restive Anbar province, had been unlike the others.

They walked the streets on foot, passing out candy, chocolates and the occasional soccer ball to waving children. Their patrols weaved fearlessly around lines of cars and through packed markets. For the most part, their house calls began with knocks, not kicks. It was their strategy to win the respect, if not the love, of the city's Sunni Arab population. They wanted to cut the road linking the heartland of the Iraqi insurgency with the Syrian border.

No unit was more involved in the Hit campaign than Charlie Company of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit's Battalion Landing Team. The company's 200 men did the majority of the patrolling here. And it was Charlie that suffered seven Marines wounded and three killed in a pair of attacks over the last week.

Led by Capt. David Handy, a native of New Bern, N.C., the company hadn't previously suffered a single man killed or wounded since coming to town in December. Handy recorded 18 violent incidents a week when he arrived, and said it was down to four thanks to an aggressive program of patrolling the city's streets 24 hours a day.

"I think we've built a foundation here," Handy, 31, said before setting out on another patrol in the rain-soaked city Friday. "I really do hope that I read in six months that the Marines are able to leave this city."

Apart from its strategic location, Hit has little but history to its name. Its founding dates to the days of Babylon, long before the prophet Muhammad or Jesus was born. Hollow stone ruins from that time still stand by the Euphrates on the edge of Hit, reminders of an age when conquerors showed no mercy to the beaten.

'It's an IED!'

Within the next few days, the old rule the Marines had attempted to follow -- treat others as you'd like to be treated -- would be confronted by the more ancient wish for vengeance.

Charlie Company's bad luck began a few hours after Handy stated his hope. It had been a quiet day. They assembled a convoy of five vehicles to make the day's "chow run" to two other bases in the city, delivering a hot dinner of beef stew and peas to the units standing guard there.

The convoy cleared the final checkpoint outside what the Marines called "Hotel Hit," a beaten-up former teachers' college in the western part of town that serves as Charlie Company's headquarters. The three Marines in the last Humvee, accompanied by a reporter, were grousing about the wet weather when the sharp sound of an explosion ended their conversation.

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