Faces of the 101st

In the Battle for Baghdad, U.S. Turns War on Insurgents

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

PATROL BASE SWAMP, Iraq -- Here, in a half-ruined house bristling with dull black machine guns and surrounded by green sandbags, shin-deep mudholes, and shadowy palm groves, lies the leading edge of the U.S. war in Iraq.

This remote outpost, manned by Bravo Company of a unit in the 101st Airborne Division, is the forwardmost American position in the so-called Triangle of Death southwest of Baghdad. Some U.S. commanders say the region is now the focal point in their campaign against Iraq's stubborn insurgency. It's a tough fight: Just getting U.S. troops established here in the canal-laced fields of the Euphrates River Valley meant running a gantlet of roadside bombs, with one platoon encountering 14 in a three-hour stretch.

Interviews with U.S. soldiers -- from top generals to front-line grunts in Tall Afar, Mosul, Ramadi, Balad and throughout Baghdad -- as well as briefings at the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, reveal a markedly different war from that seen in 2003 and 2004, or even last year.

Current U.S. military commanders say they have come to understand that they are fighting within a political context, which means the results must first be judged politically. The pace and shape of the war also have changed, with U.S. forces trying to exercise tactical patience and shift responsibilities to Iraqi forces, even as they worry that the American public's patience may be dwindling.

The war also has changed geographically. Over the last three years, it has developed a pattern of moving around the country, from Fallujah to Najaf to Mosul and Samarra and back to Fallujah. Last summer and fall it was focused in Tall Afar, in the northwest, and in the upper Euphrates, in the remote western part of Anbar province near Syria.

This year the war seems to hinge on the battle for Baghdad. Inside the capital, that promises to be primarily a political fight over the makeup of the future government of Iraq -- and whether it can prevent a civil war, a threat that appeared much more likely this week with the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and retaliatory attacks on Sunni mosques and clerics.

U.S. officials don't talk much about the prospects of civil war. It is unclear what role the United States would play if such a war broke out, but military strategists said American forces would be used to try to minimize violence but not to actually intervene between warring groups.

On Baghdad's outskirts, the war remains very much a military campaign. The flat agricultural plain south and southwest of the capital "is what I would call the most lethal area in Baghdad," said Col. Todd Ebel, the brigade commander there.

This is the war of the Iyahs, as American troops call the cluster of hard-bitten towns named Mahmudiyah, Yusufiyah, Latifiyah and Iskandariyah that over the last two years became insurgent strongholds. Not coincidentally, these towns, between Baghdad and Karbala, also are on the fault line between Sunni Iraq and Shiite Iraq and likely would be a flash point for a civil war.

"The insurgency belongs to the 4 ID and the Marines -- it's Baghdad and the west," said a senior U.S. military intelligence official in Qatar who declined to be identified by name because of his line of work. (Ebel's 101st Division brigade running Patrol Base Swamp and operating southwest of Baghdad is attached to the 4th Infantry Division, which has responsibility for the Baghdad area.) Senior military officials describe the Marine Corps' fight in western Anbar province more as an effort to contain an insurgency they expect to remain chronic in that area.

Here in the area south and west of Baghdad, the push by the Army's 4th Infantry was launched in recent months to give the capital some breathing space. "My job, above all things, is to keep them out of Baghdad," said Capt. Andre Rivier, the Swiss-American commander of Patrol Base Swamp. "The important thing is to keep them fighting here. That's really the crux of the fight." By taking the battle to rural-based insurgents, the Army hopes to gain the initiative, pressuring the enemy at a time and place of the Americans' choosing, rather than simply trying to catch suicide bombers as they drive into the capital.

Despite its proximity to the city, this area was visited surprisingly sporadically by U.S. troops over the last three years. Even now there are pockets where no American faces have been seen, and there still are no-go areas for U.S. troops where the roads are heavily seeded with bombs. Following counterinsurgency doctrine, Ebel doesn't want to take areas and then leave them. So he moves his forces slowly, first establishing a checkpoint, then conducting patrols to study the area and its people, and then, after a pause, pushing his front line half a mile forward and putting up another checkpoint.

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