NINEWEH PROVINCE, Iraq --
It wasn’t long after breakfast on Nov. 12 that Lance Cpl. Russell L. Pope was sitting in the cold in the back of a Light Armored Vehicle driving through a small town in western Nineveh province.
He wasn’t nervous, he said, just on edge. Like the Iraqi people seemed to be in the market of the seemingly anti-coalition town of T’all Uhwaynat, a main trade hub leading from Syria to Mosul.
“Your spider senses, they kick in, and you’re a lot more alert; you’re paying a lot more attention to everything around you,” said Pope, scout, Company D, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division. “We rolled in and the whole market stopped, everybody stopped, and they all started staring at us.”
Pope wasn’t the only one feeling the pressure.
The town seemed “edgy, you can feel that a fight’s coming. You just don’t know what the first punch is going to be,” said 1st Lt. Robert J. Bibeau, platoon commander, Company D.
“In the event that we’d take contact in terrain like that, that first punch is going to hurt, but then we’d maneuver on the enemy and beat him down,” said Bibeau.
Luckily Pope’s thumb never switched the weapon off “safe.” That punch never came. Any enemy, if present, stayed low and skipped out on Bibeau’s beat down.
Though the “Diablos” may not have fired a round, they still considered their mounted patrol through T’all Uhwaynat a successful strike against the enemy.
“It’s just a big show of presence,” said Sgt. Timothy A. Cramer, chief scout, Company D. “Showing our presence let’s them know that we’re out there, and we here to get rid of the bad guys.”
Cramer, 28, Mesa, Ariz., said showing presence does two important things: scares the “bad guys” and reassures innocent civilians. Noting and influencing public sentiment is just as much a part of reconnaissance as geographical details.
“The people are key in this type of fight, just like the terrain,” said Bibeau, 27, Moriarty, N.M.
Bibeau said that the high ground has always given an advantage in battles decided by terrain. In counterinsurgency, public sentiment is the high ground.
“You can’t win against an insurgency by alienating the people. You can’t know the people unless you go out and meet them,” said Bibeau.
Meeting new people isn’t always easy at first. For Marines in this town, it’s better to show their faces first and pass through, rather than dive right in shaking hands and kissing babies.
“Sometimes you have to take baby steps,” said Bibeau. “It’s kind of an issue of letting the people who are friendly to us know that, hey, we’re here to help and we’re here to stay. And it’s also an issue of letting the enemy know ‘you’re not going to intimidate me and you’re not going to scare me away.’”
Not all the villages out here put off the same vibe. The people usually greet the Marines with smiles and waves.
“All the other little villages that we have gone through, the kids come out and wave,” said Pope, 24, Livingston, Texas. “When we rolled through (T’all Uhwaynat), everybody just stopped and stared, no kids waved, nobody had a smile on their face, they all just looked like ‘why are you here?’ It was more a face of awkwardness, it wasn’t very warm.”
Bibeau said the lack of warmth could be attributed to the fact that village is located on one of the main roads leading from Syria to Mosul. Until the Marines arrived, there was little Coalition force presence in the town.
“The town is strategically crucial for the enemy. It has a very thriving marketplace right along the main avenue, and that road runs all the way down to Mosul from a large city up in Syria. If you’re looking to get into Mosul fast, you’re going to take that route because it’s a good resupply location for the enemy,” said Bibeau.
Whatever the reason villagers gave Marines the cold shoulder, the Marines intend to free them from any oppression. If the town is a resupply route for the insurgents, it won’t be long before the Diablos take it away.
“Showing our faces let’s them know that we’re here and that we’ll be here for a while. We’re not going to back down,” Cramer said. “They’ll see us again.”
The Marines of Company D, 1st LAR, make up one element of the first Marine Air Ground Task Force outside Anbar in Iraq since 2004. They traveled to the Nineweh province to kick off Operation Defeat Al Qaeda in the North II, an operation aimed at stamping out the insurgency just west of the restive city of Mosul.