Published October 07, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq – It doesn't make the headlines the way Ramadi or Sadr City do, but Northern Babil province is one of the baddest places in all Iraq.
Richard Armitage knows it. In a speech last month, the deputy secretary of state listed the areas that needed to be cleaned up: Najaf (done), Samarra (being done), Fallujah (coming up) and northern Babil (happening right now).
The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (search) is in charge of this wild area south of Baghdad. This week, they're carrying out something called Operation Phantom Fury.
About 4,000 Marines, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi security forces are involved in the biggest mission the 24th MEU has pulled off in the area.
The aim: Root out the wild bunch of characters populating the area. Or as one eager officer put it: "We're going to put the heat on them. We're going to put the screws to them."
Saddam is believed to have sent Sunni Muslim families to this largely Shiite area in the 1980's just to toughen up the place. It worked.
Ex-Baathists, nationalists, Islamic radicals, foreign fighters and just plain criminals and thugs are all part of the messy Northern Babil mix.
They've turned the highway south of Baghdad into one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the whole country.
Spanish intelligence agents got killed there. The two French journalists still being held hostage were snatched there. Many others, including regular Iraqis, have disappeared there.
It is the Bermuda Triangle of Iraq.
Anyone associated with building up a new Iraq is fair game in the area. Ten Iraqi police were killed in two separate bomb attacks Tuesday. That came hard on the heels of four Marines getting hurt in an ambush Monday night.
Many Marines from the 24th MEU have been wounded, and a few killed, since they got here about two months ago. They aren't the first to settle down here. Three other military units reportedly have worked this turf since Saddam's fall in April 2003.
But maybe because it's so rough, or maybe because there are so many other distracting hot spots nearby, or maybe because there have been so many "changes of the guard," the area has never got the concerted attention it deserves.
Now it's getting it, thanks to people like young, blond-haired Sgt. Dominick Stinson. His unit, on the night we went out with them, snatched a fellow on the west side of the Euphrates River (search) that winds through this region.
The mild-mannered target of this raid seemed a bit surprised that a ton of Marines had landed on his doorstep at 3 a.m..
But Marine intelligence had indicated that he was a facilitator of terror, assisting folks as they passed through the region. As Stinson later told me, the guy had already been given close attention by unit interrogators.
Helping on this and other missions are a growing number of Iraqis.
"They're ‘force-multipliers,'" the gruff-talking commander of the 24th, Col. Ron Johnson, said.
He meant that they can make his Marines, who are new to the area, more savvy about the terrain and people and allow them to work in places they couldn't before.
They include Iraqi translators, police, National Guard members and more importantly, specially trained "Special Force" Iraqis who know how to act like soldiers — and Iraqis.
Besides, in a country where more and more people look at the United States as an occupier, "it's patriotic," as Johnson put it. These folks will be here when the Marines are long gone.
But while the Marines are here, they're trying to disrupt the terror landscape as much as possible.
That includes cutting off a key bridge that crosses the Euphrates and links the "Sunni Triangle" towns of Fallujah and Ramadi to Baghdad. Military officials think terrorists use the bridge to transport explosives into the capital.
A force of Marines, a U.S. Army Stryker brigade and other air and water assets shut down that avenue of activity, and did it just in time. The morning before the operation, two car bombs ripped through the center of the city, killing and maiming dozens.
The Marines are also throwing roadblocks up on a road, on the west bank of the Euphrates, that directly connects Fallujah to southern Iraq, including the Shiite city of Najaf. That had been an active base of the Mahdi Army of bad-boy Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (search).
Al-Sadr has been dislodged from his perch, but signs exist of dangerous exchanges of terror techniques between the usually opposed radical Sunnis and Shiites, and those exchanges happen on this wild bit of Babil territory. Operation Phantom Fury wants to cut that down.
It also wants to simply make life a bit safer for the Marines while they stay in the area.
As I wrote this on one of my nights of being embedded, a loud whistling shell came hurtling over the base where we're staying in the town of Iskandariya. The wail of sirens prompted all of us in the tent to go hurtling into a nearby concrete bunker.
I asked one of the Marines if this was a usual thing.
"Used to be," he replied, "every night."
Now, hopefully, there's less danger for the Marines and for the Iraqis in Northern Babil.
As the people in this country gear up for something a bit foreign to them — a democratic election in January — they're going to need all the security that the United States and the Marines can muster.