QAIM, Iraq – U.S. Marines along the volatile Syrian border have largely abandoned big bases to fan out over a dozen smaller outposts within cities — part of a resurrected Vietnam-era strategy to live among civilians and mentor local soldiers.
Hundreds of Marines now live in 13 "battle positions" in five riverside cities, near where the Euphrates River enters Iraq from Syria. The new positioning allows them to launch more patrols — especially foot patrols — but also increases their exposure to attacks because they travel in smaller numbers.
The strategy, implemented after a large-scale U.S. and Iraqi offensive in the area last November, is in part a reaction against a common U.S. military tactic in Iraq of relying on patrols that depart from sprawling bases on the edges of cities.
"You've got to be in the towns, live among the people, eat with them ... until the people start telling you where the bad people are," said Lt. Col. Julian D. Alford. "If you live on the (bases) outside the city and come in for patrols, you're not going to win this."
But the new strategy also illustrates how the situation in Iraq varies dramatically from region to region. As opposed to most areas of Iraq where U.S. troops are starting to hand over bases to Iraqi troops, this majority Sunni far western portion of Anbar province lags behind — with sufficient numbers of U.S. and Iraqi troops having just arrived.
U.S. commanders view the border region as key because they say foreign fighters coming from Syria can be intercepted here before they reach more populated parts of Iraq. Suicide bombings in Baghdad and other cities have dropped because of this strategy, commanders say.
Alford, who commands the 3rd Battalion, 6th Regiment that oversees this area, says the strategy of "spreading out" was modeled after the Vietnam-era CAPs program, or Combined Action Platoon. That program based small groups of Marines inside villages to train South Vietnamese soldiers who gradually assumed greater security responsibilities.
Alford said he decided to implement the plan during a predeployment trip to the area last year. "It's worked to a 'T,'" he said.
Marines say the constant local presence helps with outreach efforts to local tribesmen who only recently actively supported the insurgency.
Marines now hold regular meetings with tribal leaders and have started their first major reconstruction projects, beginning with a project that paid local workers to clean up debris from the November assault.
An Iraqi army brigade that arrived in October with about 2,000 soldiers has been dispersed across the area, and Marines have begun training the Iraqi soldiers — some fresh out of boot camp and most from the Shiite south rather than from the Sunni areas around here.
So far, however, the Iraqis remain largely dependent on U.S. forces to lead missions and provide critical supplies such as food and ammunition.
In the city of Husaybah, Marines try to a have a foot patrol on the streets at all times, usually made of an equal number of Marines and Iraqis. They roam neighborhoods littered with rubble left over from fighting, and operate from two bases, including a U.S.-Iraqi base within an abandoned train station.
Alford asserted that with additional training the current Iraqi soldiers could soon largely control the area with fewer American troops — as long as U.S. logistics support, airpower and reinforcements continue.
In addition to the Iraqi soldiers put here, police recruiting drives have drawn hundreds of local residents in recent weeks, part of plans to establish a force of at least 600 officers.
Insurgent attacks in the area have sharply decreased since the November offensive, but violence still flares on occasion. One suicide car bombing last month killed two Marines.
And near one American outpost in Husaybah, a rocket was recently found on a school rooftop and pointed at the Americans' location.
"There hasn't been that much activity since the operation, but they're trickling back," said Lance Cpl. Daniel Turner of Laurel, Md., as he searched other nearby schools.
With the wide dispersion of troops, greater responsibilities have been delegated to young Marines who oversee their platoons on bases miles away from their commanders.
Alford says his job is just to make sure the Marine outposts have food, water and general guidance.
"This is a sergeants' and lieutenants' war — they're the ones who are going to win this thing," he said.