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November 29, 2004
Shadow of Vietnam Falls Over Iraq River Raids
HARD DUWAISH, Iraq, Nov. 28 - As marines aboard fast patrol boats roared up the Euphrates on a dawn raid on Sunday, images pressed in of another American war where troops moved up wide rivers on camouflaged boats, with machine-gunners nervously scanning riverbanks for the hidden enemy.
That war is rarely mentioned among the American troops in Iraq, many of whom were not yet born when the last American combat units withdrew from Vietnam more than 30 years ago. A war that America did not win is considered a bad talisman among those men and women, who privately admit to fears that this war could be lost.
But as an orange moon sank below the bulrushes on Sunday morning, thoughts of Vietnam were hard to avoid.
Marines waded ashore through soft silted mud that caused some to sink to their waists, M-16 rifles held skyward as others on solid land held out their rifle barrels as lifelines.
Ashore, sodden and with boots squelching mud, the troops began a five-hour tramp through dense palm groves and across paddies crisscrossed by deep irrigation canals.
There were snatches of dialogue from "Apocalypse Now," and a black joke from one marine about the landscape resembling "a Vietnam theme park."
But behind the joshing lay something more serious: the sense expressed by many of the Americans as they scoured the area that in this war, too, the insurgents might have advantages that could make them a match for highly trained troops, technological gadgetry and multibillion-dollar war budgets.
The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit conducted the river raid as part of a weeklong offensive billed as a sequel to the battle for Falluja, less than 20 miles upriver from the village where the marines landed Sunday.
The 40-foot river craft they used are called Surcs, for Small Unit Riverine Craft, a high-tech update on the Swift boats used in Vietnam. The craft were flown into Iraq aboard giant C-5 transport aircraft and were first deployed with five-man crews during the battle for Falluja this month, patrolling the stretch of the Euphrates that runs along the city's western edge to prevent attempts by insurgents to escape that way after American troops had thrown a cordon around the city.
Those patrols were judged a success by American commanders. Now they are eager to exploit the potential the patrol boats give them for mounting fast, unexpected attacks along the Tigris and the Euphrates. The rivers run through many of the cities and towns that are rebel strongholds, and the long stretches of verdant riverbank provide ideal hiding places for insurgents and their weapons caches.
The raid, backed by air cover from attack helicopters and pilotless drones, gave the Americans a chance to exploit another new dimension of their strategy for winning the war: twinning American combat units with newly trained Iraqi troops.
After failures earlier this year, when many Iraqi units deserted or refused to fight, the American command wrote a new blueprint for training tens of thousands of Iraqi fighters and used Falluja as the first, critical testing ground. Considered a qualified success there, the best Iraqi units have been an integral part of every major raid in the follow-up offensive here.
In many raids, they have heavily outnumbered American troops, as they did in the operation on Sunday, which included 40 marines and 80 members of a special Iraqi commando unit assigned to the country's powerful Interior Ministry.
As much as they wanted to test their new river boats, American commanders wanted to see how the commandos - many drawn from elite units of Saddam Hussein's special forces - would respond to an arduous and potentially risky mission.
This day, long before the three-mile sweep through the palm groves and citrus orchards and paddies was ended, the mood among the marines had soured as the Iraqis adopted a mostly dilatory attitude toward the tedious business of spreading out in long lines and moving methodically across the terrain, poking haystacks, running metal detectors over piles of palm fronds, peering into thick clusters of bulrushes, and digging in places of freshly turned earth.
"They've just about given up," said Lt. Jerman Duarte, 34, of Houston, his voice edged with exasperation.
Lieutenant Duarte, a native of Guatemala, led the raid in his capacity as commander of a reconnaissance and surveillance platoon that has honed its skills in many of the marines' toughest raids and stakeouts during their five months in Iraq. Among his men, he is known as "El Guapo," the handsome one, for his fine features and his bristling mustache. But his sense of urgency and do-it-by-the-book briskness appeared lost on the Iraqi fighters, who used their rest breaks in the morning sunshine to trade quips about the Americans, not all of them friendly.
As in so much else about the American venture in Iraq, cultural differences played their part. At one point, Lieutenant Duarte bridled when some of the Iraqis resisted his repeated urging that they spread out along the line, preferring to cluster together, ineffectively, at one end. A Marine sergeant told him that the Iraqis were officers and did not feel that they should be asked to work side by side with common soldiers.
One of the Iraqi officers, asked if he spoke English, replied snappily, "English no good. Arabic good. Iraq good." The message seemed clear.
Although recruits in the new Iraqi units undergo strict vetting, American officers say rebel sympathizers have infiltrated some of the new units - some of the soldiers have been caught tipping off rebel groups. If there were sympathies for Hussein loyalists among these raiders, though, the area chosen for the sweep would likely have stirred them. One American officer described the stretch of the Euphrates that runs southeast from Falluja as "Saddam's Hamptons" for the clusters of luxurious villas set along the riverbank, mostly built by favored stalwarts of Mr. Hussein. The territory controlled by the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, across the southernmost reaches of Iraq's Sunni heartland, served as an arsenal for Mr. Hussein, with dozens of weapons research facilities, munitions factories, and vast weapons storage sites, including the one at Al Qaqaa, which made headlines last month when the Americans discovered that more than 350 tons of high explosives were missing.
Recent American sweeps in the area have uncovered some of the largest weapons caches found in post-Hussein Iraq. And the raid here on Sunday, about five miles from Al Qaqaa, followed a tip that more large caches might be found there.
But either the tipoff was flawed or the raid missed the target. Altogether, Lieutenant Duarte's men discovered only an old shotgun and three Kalashnikov rifles, two of them in plastic bags that were clumsily buried in a paddy field. They also found two sets of identity documents belonging to a high-ranking member of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party. After a marine stumbled across a yellow plastic bag lying in an irrigation panel with what he identified as a severed human head and intestines, Lieutenant Duarte radioed to headquarters and was told to leave it for investigation by the Iraqi police.
In the end, the day's main yield came not from the raid, but from the brutal chance that comes with every foray into the Iraqi hinterland. On the road back to the Marine base at Camp Kalsu, 40 miles from the raiding site, the unit's convoy of armored trucks and Humvees was attacked near the town of Latifiya with a huge roadside bomb.
Unlike a similar device that killed two marines in a nearby incident later in the day, the bomb caused no injuries or damage. But two Humvees broke away from the convoy and pursued two fleeing men with Kalashnikovs into a house about a mile back from the highway, shooting one dead and capturing the other. The men were said to have been found with a cellphone that could have been used to set off the bomb.