TAL AFAR, Iraq—U.S. Army officers in the badland deserts of northwest Iraq, near the Syrian border, say they don't have enough troops to hold the ground they take from insurgents in this transit point for weapons, money and foreign fighters.
From last October to the end of April, there were about 400 soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division patrolling the northwest region, which covers about 10,000 square miles.
"Resources are everything in combat ... there's no way 400 people can cover that much ground," said Maj. John Wilwerding, of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which is responsible for the northwest tract that includes Tal Afar.
"Because there weren't enough troops on the ground to do what you needed to do, the (insurgency) was able to get a toehold." said Wilwerding, 37, of Chaska, Minn.
During the past two months, Army commanders, trying to pacify the area, have had to move in some 4,000 Iraqi soldiers; about 2,000 more are on the way. About 3,500 troops from the 3rd ACR took control of the area this month, but officers said they were still understaffed for the mission.
"There's simply not enough forces here," said a high-ranking U.S. Army officer with knowledge of the 3rd ACR. "There are not enough to do anything right; everybody's got their finger in a dike."
The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concern that he'd be reprimanded for questioning American military policy in Iraq.
The Army has no difficulty in launching large-scale operations to catch fighters in "an insurgent Easter egg hunt," the officer said. "But when we're done, what comes next?"
Control of the area is seen as key to stemming the insurgency in the rest of Iraq. More than 650 Iraqis have been killed since the nation's interim government took office April 28.
May also is turning out to be the deadliest month since November for U.S. troops in Iraq, with 65 reported killed so far by insurgents, according to figures tabulated by Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a group that tracks coalition troop deaths from Department of Defense releases.
"This town is kind of like a staging point for the rest of the country," said Capt. Geoff Mangus, 25, of Milledgeville, Ga., an Army intelligence officer in Tal Afar. "They know that weapons and foreign fighters can filter through here unscathed."
Army officials in northwest Iraq described a two-year cat-and-mouse game with insurgents who move from one outpost or town to the next, sustaining casualties but buoyed by an influx of fighters slipping across the Iraq-Syria border, which in many places isn't patrolled. From their sanctuaries in the area, the fighters then spread across the country, some volunteering to be suicide bombers.
They funnel cash, arms and recruits to the insurgency, Mangus said. Repeated efforts to secure the area have failed.
In Tal Afar, the police—with only 150 officers left in what was a 600-man force—are holed up in the only remaining police station. Insurgents destroyed three others last year. To the west, the mayor and police have abandoned the town of Bi'aj. To the south, in Rawah, a recent patrol found no evidence of the mayor, police or "rule of law," said Maj. Bryan Denny, 38, of Oxford, N.C.
Military commanders in the region said they planned to reinstall police squads and governmental leaders where possible to keep insurgents from overrunning the towns.
They've tried that before. U.S. forces retook Tal Afar from insurgents last September after a two-week blockade, airstrikes and intense street combat. The top American officer in the area, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, predicted then that the some 250,000 residents of Tal Afar would be back on their feet soon.
More than eight months later, insurgents still launch daily sniper and mortar attacks on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. Car bombings in the town killed 40 people and wounded 80, at a minimum, in May. Two helicopters have been forced to land because of hostile fire during the past week.
Sectarian and tribal tensions also have increased, putting American soldiers in the precarious position of navigating bloody disputes between warring factions with their own conflicting agendas and further straining resources.
A group of about 25 U.S. soldiers and 100 Iraqi soldiers has moved into a Tal Afar neighborhood to separate two warring tribes. The Americans said one tribe was pro-insurgent and was targeting the other because it was pro-American. Others in town said the tribes—one is Sunni Muslim and the other Shiite—were fighting over jobs and territory. The mayor is suspected of sympathizing with the insurgents.
"What the insurgents want to do, what the terrorists want to do, is incite ethnic and sectarian violence," said Col. H.R. McMaster, 42, of Philadelphia, who commands the 3rd ACR.
"The danger that all of us are concerned about is that these communities will fall in on themselves," McMaster said.
"If the tribes cannot work together, if they cannot make a deal, we can be here 20 more years and do nothing," Brig. Gen. Mohsen Doski, the commander of the Iraqi army brigade in Tal Afar, told 3rd ACR Lt. Col. Chris Hickey, as the two spoke about how to deal with the violence in Tal Afar.
The problem of control is especially apparent in smaller desert enclaves.
When an attachment of 25th Infantry soldiers, doing a sweep in tandem with the 3rd ACR, came across a house near Rawah last week, they were expecting to sit down and talk with the locals about water quality.
In June 2003, American troops had destroyed an insurgent training camp in the area, killing more than 70 suspected fighters with helicopter strikes and a large ground offensive. It was one of the biggest camps discovered in postwar Iraq.
Last week, when the ramp of an armored vehicle began to open outside the house near Rawah, an insurgent shot a rocket-propelled grenade at it and other insurgents let loose with machine-gun fire.
The 25th Infantry soldiers responded first with .50-caliber machine-gun fire and then two shoulder-launched rockets. Four insurgents—three from Saudi Arabia and one from Morocco—were killed, Maj. Denny said. After the house caught fire, four more insurgents surrendered. They were from Syria, Jordan and Algeria.
"They'd come to Iraq to kill Americans; they were looking for jihad"—or holy war—Denny said.
Asked if he planned on pacifying Rawah—a town of some 50,000 with no police or mayor—Denny shook his head.
"We could go in and clear them all out tomorrow, but if we left and didn't install law there, it would happen again," he said. "You need an Iraqi army battalion to hang out in Rawah."
And that, he said, isn't going to happen anytime soon.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050531 USIRAQ map