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US Marines build sand walls in latest Iraq tactic

Adapting ideas tracing back from ancient history to modern Israel, US Marines have sealed off flashpoint towns with sand walls in a new counter-insurgency tactic to quell the wilds of western Iraq.


Jan 11 9:13 AM US/Eastern

Driving across the desert to Haditha, one of the war's deadliest and most infamous battlefields, the grey plain suddenly collapses into a ditch and rises into an intimidating 12-foot (around four-metre) bank of bulldozed sand.

This is bleak territory in Al-Anbar province, bordering on Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Freezing wind howls across the desert in winter. The summer sun is merciless, sand storms a constant curse.

Scores of American soldiers have been killed around Haditha in the four years since the US invasion. The area has been terrorised by Al-Qaeda fighters who reportedly roam large, beheading civilians to impose fundamentalism.

Haditha has become even more notorious in the West since US Marines sowed their own brand of terror by killing 24 Iraqis after one of their buddies was ripped apart by a roadside bomb in 2005. Murder charges have been pressed.

When 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines deployed to western Al-Anbar from Hawaii in mid-September they sustained casualties in Haditha every day for 45 days. Then on November 10, gun battles in the town stopped.

Captain Matthew Tracy, whose marines patrol Haditha, attributes the lull to a local strongman, a former officer in the Saddam Hussein army known simply as Colonel Faruq, with the power and charisma to bring the town to heel.

Provided, that was, the Marines built a defensive sand wall sealing off Haditha from the porous desert, with checkpoints and traffic restrictions.e

So last month, "berms" stretching 20 kilometres (12 miles) were built around Haditha and two neighbouring towns to cut off insurgent supply lines. A simultaneous US-led raid left dozens of insurgents dead or captured.

Despite an injection of extra forces, Marines are stretched thin across the enormity of Al-Anbar, one of the most violent provinces of Iraq. In principle, berms restrict enemy movement without wasting precious human resources.

Today there is one road in and one road out of Haditha. Iraqi police, backed up by US Marines in a bunker, check all travellers and search all vehicles. There are metal wand detectors, mirror plates and bomb sniffer dogs.

Anyone wanting to leave needs written permission signed by the US marines. Supply convoys are admitted subject to search, but American officers say few truck loads dispatched by the central government make it this far west.

ID cards are scrutinized and travellers questioned. A town census means the authorities know who lives here and who doesn't. A total ban on vehicle traffic in town has ended car bombings, suicide car bombings and drive-by shootings.

"In mid-September there were 10 to 13 attacks per day in the triad, although the enemy was concentrated in Haditha. Now there is one every two to three days," says Major Kevin Matthews in the sand-bagged US base downtown.

Outside, shopkeepers stand stony faced as a US patrol creaks over the pot-holed main street. Shepherds tend to their muddy flocks. Children look fearful. A few women brave the shops, peering anxiously behind their hijab.

Residents, whose sympathy for the pro-Saddam insurgency runs high, if doctored by fear of Al-Qaeda, are caught between welcoming the security improvement and frustration at the restrictions imposed by the "occupiers".

It takes an average of 40 minutes to cross the checkpoint heading out of town. "That's a shorter time than trying to drive to work in New York," smiles Second Lieutenant Andy Frick who helped design the wall.

Expect that Haditha isn't New York. The district population is only 80,000. For calm to return properly, more Iraqi police than the current 120 need to be recruited. Reconstruction needs to happen. A city council needs to be elected.

That all this happened after the Americans first arrived in 2003, only to end in a bloodbath when Marines were sent to east to Fallujah for a massive assault on insurgents in November 2004, underscores the fragility.

As soon as the Americans left, Al-Qaeda gunmen ambushed and killed 21 Iraqi policemen in Haditha. Gunmen rounded up 19 men in a football stadium and put a bullet through their skulls. This year, nine Haditha policemen were beheaded.

"It's like a man trying to establish a relationship with a woman who's been severely hurt two or three times. I've got to convince you not all men are terrible. It's about creating warmth and security," says Tracy.

"That's why the idea of leaving or pulling out is so appalling."

The berming of Haditha, neighbouring Haqlaniyah and Barwanah took the lead from Anah, elsewhere in Al-Anbar, where similar defences proved successful.

While some officers recognise similarity with Israel's separation barrier in the occupied West Bank in terms of the same stated goal of keeping "bad guys out" many are wary about drawing too close a politically explosive analogy.

"What surprises me is how much the Iraqis look at that. 'You ought to do what the Israelis do. If someone plants an IED, you should bulldoze their house'," says Lieutenant Colonel Jim Donnellan, US Marine commander of Haditha.

"Probably some of it does come from Israel, or at least the ideas behind it. We use the same bulldozers as they do, although I think we're a little more gentle. We don't run over any homes," says Frick.

Colonel W. Blake Crowe, the overall US commander for western Al-Anbar, calls them gated communities and likens them to the walls around Biblical Jericho. Tracy compares them to Neolithic barricades built to keep out nomadic invaders.