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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 4, 2006

Haditha still turbulent under Isle troops' watch

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

The region in Iraq where a unit of California Marines is accused of shooting 24 civilians has been a dangerous place for Hawai'i Marines, who are now responsible for the area.

The Marines say they have improved relations in the region, but they still face regular ambushes that have claimed the lives of nine Marines.

About 1,000 Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, in March took over responsibility in the Haditha area, about 140 miles northwest of Baghdad. Previously, it had been patrolled by the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.

The Nov. 19 killings have placed Haditha in the spotlight, prompted comparisons to Vietnam and damaged U.S.-Iraqi relations. Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called the deaths "a horrible crime," and accused U.S. troops of habitually attacking unarmed civilians.

An investigation is under way, and Brig. Gen. Donald Campbell, chief of staff for Multinational Corps Iraq, said incidents of alleged abuse of force "do not reflect the honorable service of nearly 150,000 coalition forces currently serving in Iraq."

Responding to an e-mail asking about the May 22 deaths of two Marines in a roadside bomb attack, Lt. Col. Norm Cooling, the Hawai'i battalion's commander, said "in one of the most dangerous and insurgent influenced areas in Iraq, this battalion has not only held the line but advanced the ball."

"We have assumed an area that is 35 percent larger than the battalion that preceded us and have significantly increased the stability in the Jubbah-Baghdadi-Dulab region," Cooling said.

"Meanwhile, the Iraqi army battalion with which we are partnered grows daily in its proficiency. All the while, we have dealt with the daily small-arms fire attacks, indirect fire attacks and improvised explosive devices that our enemy routinely employs in hopes of killing American service members and influencing American public opinion."

Cooling, in a Marine Corps-produced news story in May, said security conditions were improving in the "Triad" area along the upper western Euphrates Valley, as evidenced by regular meetings of local city and tribal officials.

Six months before, Iraqi leaders were targeted by insurgents and such a meeting would not have been possible, he said.

"Since the councilmen agreed to meet with us, it proves they want to work with us and they believe we are interested in addressing their concerns," Cooling said.

Cooling could not be reached for comment about relations with the civilian community in Haditha in the aftermath of the Nov. 19 shootings.

The battalion headquarters is at Haditha Dam, but its nearly 1,000 Marines are spread throughout the "Triad" of Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana near the Euphrates River and down to the Baghdadi-Jubbah-Dulab region.

Sgt. Roe F. Seigle, a 26-year-old combat correspondent from Marietta, Ga., deployed with the 3/3 Marines, known as "America's Battalion," reported that Haditha, a hotbed of insurgent activity less than a year before, is being patrolled daily by Marines and Iraqi soldiers.

In early October, the 3/1 Marines out of Camp Pendleton had taken part in Operation River Gate with 2,500 U.S. troops and 400 Iraqi soldiers to clear out insurgents in the smuggling crossroads, with rockets fired from helicopters in the air assault.

The constant presence of the Marines, along with counter-insurgency operations last year, helped "calm" the region, Seigle said.

But attacks have continued, mostly in the form of roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Of the 11 Hawai'i Marines killed in western Iraq since March, nine were felled by roadside bombs, one died as a result of a vehicle rollover and the mother of another Marine said her son was killed in a friendly-fire incident.

Seigle said an April 28 blast hit one Humvee that had gone out at night to recover another vehicle and was returning to base at Haditha Dam.

A fireball erupted and flipped the Humvee 180 degrees and onto its side. Killed were Sgt. Lea Mills, 21, from Brooksville, Fla.; Sgt. Edward G. Davis, 31, from Antioch, Ill.; and Cpl. Brandon M. Hardy, 25, from Cochranville, Pa.

In May, Sgt. Andy Darnell's Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb in Baghdadi.

"These cowards out here know they would not beat us in a face-to-face fight, so they (place) these IEDs and then they go and hide," he said afterward.

Two weeks before, a group of insurgents had driven by the police station in Baghdadi and shot to death 15 recruits.

Marine Corps Base Hawai'i officials did not respond to questions on whether the 3/3 Marines faced a backlash from the Nov. 19 incident in Haditha, or whether any tactics were changed.

On that date, Marines with the California unit, enraged by the loss of a comrade to a roadside bomb, stormed into nearby homes in the area and allegedly shot occupants dead as well as several men in a taxi that arrived at the scene of the blast, according to U.S. lawmakers briefed by military officials.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach William Cole at 525-5459 or wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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