Cheat-Seeking Missles

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Night Mission, A Stick, A Carrot

OC Register columnist Gordon Dillow, 55, has just returned from his third trip to Iraq. He's not the Baghdad Hilton kind of reporter; he goes with the troops into dangerous situations where the real war is being fought.

Today's OCRegister column covers a night patrol in the town of Ar-Rutbah, near the Syrian border. The entire column should make your Sunday reading list. Here's the conclusion:

We are almost back to the Marines' outpost, tired and sweated through our clothes – or at least I am – when from several hundred yards behind us comes a tremendous "boom!" We look back and see a dark gray smoke cloud rising up from the ground over which we had just walked.

It is an IED, an "improvised explosive device," the No. 1 health hazard to American Marines and soldiers in Iraq. They are usually made from artillery or mortar shells, sometimes with propane gas tanks attached to increase the fireball effect. The immediate suspicion is that an insurgent had planted the IED in our tracks, hoping that the next patrol would move along the same path and could be blown to oblivion.
Presumably, as sometimes happens with homemade bombs, it had gone off prematurely.

The next morning a group of Iraqis will carry a man to the Marines' traffic control point, a man with part of his jaw blown off and his legs and chest peppered with shrapnel. He will claim that he was just standing there, minding his own business – this at 2 a.m., after curfew, in Iraq – when he got blown up. The actual assumption is that he planted the IED, probably for pay – the insurgents will pay locals about $200 to dig holes and plant the bombs – and inadvertently got blown up for his efforts.

The Marines hate IEDs and the people who plant them; they wish that the wounded man had gotten even more blown up than he did.

In any event, the IED gives the otherwise routine patrol a sense of the unusual and the dangerous – which in fact is what the Marines crave. That may be hard for us to understand. But for many of these Marines, this is their first tour in Iraq – and for now, at least, they are eager to fight, to test themselves in combat.

The IED explosion will have another impact. As a show of force, another waving of the stick [Dillow writes earlier of the carrot and stick approach the US has in this war], a couple of hours after the explosion the Marines call in an F-18 jet to swoop over the town at low level, "on the deck," dropping flares as it goes. The rumble and scream of the jet tumbles the Marines from the patrol out of their cots at the TCP; presumably, it rattles the townsfolk as well. And the next morning, Marines in light armored vehicles, bristling with weaponry, will encircle and look down menacingly on the town.

That may seem harsh and coercive to Americans safely abed at home, but by Iraq standards it is remarkably restrained. It is also necessary. In this dangerous country, where strength is respected and weakness held in contempt, attacks must be answered or the advantage shifts.

And it seems to work. Later a local imam will approach a Marine Civil Affairs Group team attached to the Marines' TCP and ask to talk.

How can we stop all this? the imam wants to know. How can we bring peace to Ar-Rutbah?

It's a small start, a tiny opening, a tentative channel of communications. But the hope is there.

The hope is there that after the stick, the people of Ar-Rutbah will finally, at long last, reach for the carrot.

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