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Iraq Transition

On the frontlines against al Qaeda in Iraq

Marines play game of cat and mouse with insurgency

By Arwa Damon
CNN

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Col. Stephen Davis patrols in Anbar province Monday.

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WESTERN ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq (CNN) -- A blue sign with yellow writing stands along the highway leading into Qaim, in Iraq's western desert, warning citizens not to cooperate with the Americans. It is signed by al Qaeda in Iraq. Marines remove it.

Col. Stephen Davis, commander of the Marines Regimental Combat Team 2, whose forces operate in western Anbar, tells CNN that Marines have received reports of fliers going up in many of the cities in the Qaim region.

The fliers also bear messages from al Qaeda in Iraq. They urge citizens to rise and fight the holy fight. They condemn Iraq's government and last year's offensive into Falluja. Fliers also promote attacks allegedly carried out in the region and claim the killings of dozens of U.S. forces at a time and the shooting down of military aircraft.

The U.S. Marines also have received reports of fliers telling residents of Sa'dat, just west of Qaim, to leave the city or face death at the hands of the insurgents -- and they have seen civilians leaving the area.

The Marines, stretched thin in this vast expanse of land, have played a game of cat and mouse with the insurgency up and down the Euphrates River valley for months. Forces invade a city and take it back from the insurgents, only to have the insurgents return once they have withdrawn.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, claims his group has taken over the Qaim area, hailing it "The Islamic Republic of Qaim."

"We do not have a permanent presence there, and insurgents have removed any representative government," Davis says. "But, we go in where we want, whenever we want, and do whatever we want."

Numerous airstrikes in the Qaim region have eliminated many of the insurgent leaders in the area and caused significant damage to the networks, Davis says.

He says the Marines have been launching targeted attacks, raids, and airstrikes on known insurgent strongholds up and down the Euphrates River, eliminating bomb-making factories and cells, weapons caches, car bomb storage and assembly facilities.

They also have bombed strategic bridges that were believed to be used as crossing points for a flow of fighters and weapons. Not only are Marines targeting the physical infrastructure of the insurgency but also the organizational one, he says.

"We are dismantling the network," the colonel says. "We are taking out the leaders, the facilitators, the financiers, the operational guys, and the foot solders."

Still, he acknowledges that there is an abundance of individuals willing to fill in the gaps for those insurgents that the coalition has killed or captured, but he says the replacements coming in do not have the same experience nor are they of the same quality as their predecesors.

Recently, U.S. and Iraqi forces have been building up in an effort to secure the highly volatile and strategic Euphrates River valley, though specific numbers of troops are not being released at this time.

Davis says the build-up is an acknowledgement of an insurgent threat that allowed for the reallocation of forces. "The build-up is driven by the fact that intelligence pulls us where the threat is. We always go where the intel drives us."

More than a thousand insurgents are believed to operate in the valley. They are a combination of three main elements -- a tribal element deeply embedded with criminal ties, "homegrown" elements of the former regime and Ba'athist Party, and the foreign fighter/al-Zarqawi network. These elements will at the same time fight each other and work together.

The only city in the area with a permanent U.S. and Iraqi presence is Hit -- only after coalition forces took control about two months ago without firing a single shot -- and is being hailed as a success story.

But that comes at a price to civilians. While U.S. and Iraqi forces patrol the city to keep it safe, many civilans say the security conditions are not better because they fear being caught in the crossfire should the forces come under attack.

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