MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, SOUTHERN IRAQThe tip came from an Iraqi local, a "walk-in" as they call it in the intelligence world. A group of Baath Party leaders had converged on the small village of Suq Ash Shuyuk, just south of the Euphrates River town of Nasiryah. The village had become a hive of Saddam loyalists and a way station for militia fighters on their way north to do battle with the marines holding two bridges at Nasiryah. The source gave the location of the headquarters, as well as the numbers of Baath Party brass assembled in the building. Within hours, jets from the Marine Air Wing had decimated the headquarters, breaking up the meeting earlier than planned.
The Marines weren't expecting a counterguerrilla campaign in Iraq. Their task was to push ever north toward Baghdad, striking the heart of Saddam's regime with little concern about what they encountered along the way. Now, even as the Army and the Marines take on Republican Guard divisions encircling Baghdad, U.S. troops are finding that the only way to make a successful push north is to fight a rear-guard action against militia forces disrupting critical supply lines to the front.
Saddam's Baath Party leadership has become target No. 1. To the surprise of U.S. forces in Iraq, the tentacles of Saddam's control reach far beyond the Iraqi capital, and the Baath Party still has an iron grip on towns throughout Iraq's hinterlands. War planners now say that simply ousting Saddam will no longer be enough to pacify Iraq. "You might be able to chop off the head, but the body is going to be twitching," says Col. Alan Baldwin, intelligence chief for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "We're going to have to capture or kill these guys."
The anger among marines is palpable, fueled by constant reports from frontline troops of vicious tactics used by Iraqi militias to slow the U.S. advance. U.S. troops have begun specifically targeting Baath Party headquarters in towns and villages as a way of cutting off the command and control of the Saddam Fedayeen, Special Security Organization, and Baath Party Militia now engaging Marine and Army units.
And, to help in the cause, the Americans have enlisted the help of their British allies. With decades of experience fighting urban militias in cities like Belfast, British officers are now advising top U.S. commanders on how to root out the Baath Party brass with lightning raids on command-and-control hubs. "We can learn a great deal from our British friends in that regard," says Lt. Col. George Smith, a top Marine planner. The British have already had success with such tactics in Iraq, launching predawn raids in Az Zubayar and Basra to nab Iraqi militia organizers.
The Marines tested the new tactics against a Baath Party headquarters in Ash Shatra, just north of Nasiryah along Iraq's Highway 7. Armed with shoulder-fired thermobaric munitions that suck the oxygen out of a room, marinesaided by local Iraqi forcesstruck a headquarters building and then called in precision-guided bombs from Marine jets loitering nearby. Helping matters is the volumes of new information intelligence officers have been gleaning from Iraqi localsat least those who no longer fear retribution from the long arm of Saddam's regime. The quality of such information is mixed. "Some of it's phenomenal; some of it's just trash," says Baldwin.
The new intelligence has also brought military officials to the conclusion that Saddam has reorganized his regular and paramilitary forces in Iraq's four military regions. The U.S. intelligence community now believes that the regular Army forces are in many places taking orders from the militia forceswhat Bush administration officials term "regime death squads."
Many soldiers have even shed their military trappings to fight among the paramilitary forces, and U.S. troops have begun rounding up Iraqi "civilians" with military-style haircuts and boots whom they suspect may be part of the guerrilla campaign. Revised "rules of engagement" have been issued to marines covering how to handle this new class of detainees, who now will be segregated from the thousands of regular Army forces that have been captured during the coalition invasion. Says Col. Bill Durrett, staff judge advocate for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force about the new battle his marines must fight: "We thought we'd have mass capitulations, not this crap."