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An Embedded Reporter Discusses the U.S. Marines Latest Mission in Western Iraq

May 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Ellen Knickmeyer, welcome. Thanks for joining us. Give us a sense, first of all, how big this Marine offensive was in the west, and why did they launch it now?

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: It was the largest operation they’ve had since Fallujah. At one point they had — when I was watching, they had helicopters up in the air, they had bomber planes above and Marines on the ground and U.S. Army people on the River Euphrates. So it was a pretty big and coordinated attack.

MARGARET WARNER: Now from your description in the Washington Post, this offensive got off to something of a rough start.

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: We pulled up to the city Euphrates for what was supposed to be a dawn crossing. And in fact we didn’t leave until the next morning. There was a problem with getting the bridge built across the river. And because of that, by about the fifth hour that we were waiting by the bank to cross, we started getting mortar fire from the nearest town, Ubaydi.

And the mortars were getting closer, to the point that the last one hit in the yard where a lot of the officers, and we were waiting to cross. And that’s when they decided to go across the river into Ubaydi and take care of whoever was firing mortars.

MARGARET WARNER: And then you wrote a gripping account of the combat in Ubaydi, including the fact that the insurgents seem incredibly well-equipped in the form of armaments; in some degree better than the Marines?

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: Right. Right. The Marines had everything, all the kinds of weapons that the insurgents did, and more, but Marines on a firefight don’t carry all those weapons around with them, so they initially they were out-shot by the insurgents. There was the one house where the insurgents had what they thought were foreign fighters had armor-piercing bullets, so that they were lying on the crawl space of the house and firing to the floor, to the inner walls and to the outer walls at Marines as soon as they came in, as soon as they stood at the door and machine gun bullets. And they could go so hard and so fast that they were going not just through that house, but other houses next door.

MARGARET WARNER: Several days later, the squad that had borne the brunt of the fighting at that house was essentially demolished by an explosive device?

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: That’s right. The squad that had lost two men in that house and kept going back until they killed the fighters and gotten the bodies of their wounded and their dead, they’d been kept kind of to the back after that for a while, just so they could have time to regroup.

And then they were reassembled in the other squads. And they were just rolling down the road in a convoy and an IED that other vehicles say they had passed right, later said they had passed right over it, exploded under the armored vehicle of the squad and blew a two-foot hole near the bottom — the steel floor of the armored vehicle, and killed and wounded what was left of that squad.

MARGARET WARNER: The New York Times reported that the Marines have gone on a crash program to equip and armor themselves because they’re so upset about having the lack of sufficient armor. Were the Marines that you were embedded with, did they ever complain to you about their equipment?

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: You know, about the armor, they didn’t complain, but they did say they had just welded on a bunch of metals and so the vehicles that we were riding around in, they had just attached steel plates to them, or put steel plates on the bottom of the floor, to guard against mines and stuff. It’s something they had to do themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: Then finally, when they did get north of the Euphrates to these villages where they thought the foreign fighters were hiding, they didn’t find many.

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: No, they didn’t. It was disappointing to the Marines themselves. They said we went through villages, you know, village after village, and what we would find is, like, some of the families that had already — maybe half the families in some of the villages had already fled. They were afraid that if the Marines coming, then at the least it meant fighting.

And some of the places, the fighting-aged men had gone and all the weapons seem to have been gone. And we didn’t really know what to make of that because Iraqi households usually have an AK- 47 to protect themselves. And the Marines didn’t know if someone, if fighting-age people had gone and hidden their weapons, or Marines were later told that the mujahadeen operating in the area had prevented the families to have any kind of weapons like that.

MARGARET WARNER: Where does military intelligence think the foreign fighters have gone, and why didn’t the operation go on and find them, wherever that is?

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: The Marines think that some of the — or a good number of the foreign fighters probably slipped across the border into Syria because they had that much advance notice, including about the 24-hour delay in getting across the river, and that big and noisy firefight on the other side of the river just before it started.

Marines say, and local residents along the Euphrates say, that a lot of the foreign fighters and a lot of the insurgents are holed up in Husaybah, which is a town right on the Syrian border. And it’s a place where, I mean, insurgents apparently operate pretty freely. But from what — I mean, just from what the local residents tell our reporters and what the Marines say, and the Marines just — the U.S. military just doesn’t have the resources now to go in on a Fallujah-style operation and clean out that town.

With the resources it has, the U.S. Marines say that the U.S. is concentrating its resources in Fallujah and other cities; trying to calm them down. And in the meantime, they’re watching the insurgents control Husaybah so much that there is actually a kind of a power battle going on right now, according to residents of the town between foreign fighters and tribes in that town.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ellen Knickmeyer, thanks so much.

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: You’re welcome. Thank you.