AL QA’IM, Iraq -- Marines of Company B, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team-2 (RCT-2) stand on top boxes of meals-ready-to-eat so they can see out of a light armored vehicle and scan an Iraqi village in the distance, watching for insurgents trying to escape the town as U.S. Marines were clearing it during Operation Matador here May 7-15.
Operation Matador, RCT2s largest military offensive since arriving in Iraq, was conducted to root out insurgents in a string of small agricultural towns along the Euphrates River near the Syrian border known as the Ramana region.
The area had long been used by insurgents as a training ground, staging area and transit point for foreign fighters, said 1st Sgt. George E. James, 36, Company B first sergeant.
Elements of 2nd LAR battalion provided a blocking screen and security for the RCT’s main effort.
“Basically, the mission means we keep all of the runners, who are fleeing the towns, from leaving out of the objective,” James explained.
According to James, their mission was important because it prevented insurgents from crossing the border into Syria and from entering the towns while infantry Marines with RCT-2 cleared them.
“We were the very first to cross the river and the very first to have contact with the enemy,” explained the Del Ray Beach, Fla., native.
LAR was met “unexpectedly” by an enemy force estimated around 90 insurgents in the town of New Ubaydi May 8, just south of the Euphrates where U.S. soldiers from an assault bridge company worked to build a bridge across the river.
Insurgents in New Ubaydi opened up with sniper, indirect, machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
“The emotions ranged from being concerned to disbelief – they fired on us out of no where. I was surprised at the volume of fire. They hit us with everything they had, and we still pounded them into the ground,” James explained.
Lance Cpl. Jason W. Thomas, 22, the company armorer was a part of this fire fight, his first.
“It was intense and fearful to hear the rounds popping close by you and having mortar rounds landing just several meters away,” the Marquand, Mo., native said. “Normally out here they aren’t coming after you, they wait for you to roll over their improvised explosive device. They’re cowards, but this time they came right at us with everything they had.”
According to James, the fire-fight lasted well into the midnight hours and ended with approximately 60 insurgents dead.
As the operation continued, Marines with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment and Company L, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines conducted hundreds of house-to-house searches in the small villages and found an unspecified number of illegal firearms and explosive devices. LAR was a key element in completing the mission, according to James.
“Our mobility and lethality made us essential to this mission. We’re able to engage targets from long distances and able to get into areas that most other units can’t. We have scouts (infantry rifleman) that provide the reconnaissance that the command needs to make a solid decision,” James, a former Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., drill instructor, explained.
Traveling in their light armored vehicles, LAR is able to position themselves in all different terrains, which in the Ramana area were usually desert hills.
“It’s like off-roading a jeep only bigger. Driving in this area was not really that difficult, but driving in Iraq is sometimes nerve wracking, because there are mines or some guy waiting to set off an IED, that’s the only thing that bothers me,” said Lance Cpl. Colin B. Harris, 24, a driver and St. Charles, Ill., native.
All in all, Marines estimate they killed over 100 insurgents and detained 39 in their weeklong sweep. But the mission’s success was not without a price. Nine Marines were killed and 40 were injured during the operation. According to Col. Stephen W. Davis, the commanding officer of RCT-2, the operation met one of the Marine’s enduring tasks in Western Iraq, disrupt and interdict insurgent activity.
“There is now one less place in our area of operation in which the enemy can operate safely,” said Davis.
Even with the success of Operation Matador, the Marines and Sailors of RCT-2 still have a tough job ahead of them, but one they look forward to.
“We didn’t find as many insurgents as we wanted to,” said Lt. Col. Timothy S. Mundy, commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines in an earlier interview. “But we pushed a lot of them out of the Ramana area. I think the Marines did great. We still accomplished the purpose of getting them to run in front of us and proving that they don’t have any safe havens.”
“Intelligence drives the battle field. We’re able to see the enemy before he sees us and we can determine the size, activity and location. Then you can bring in forces to counter that threat,” James said.
The overall effort of LAR and the Marines with Regimental Combat Team-2 was considered a success.
“We shattered the cohesion of their terrorist cells and their ability to operate in the Ramana area,” said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Starling, the operations officer for RCT-2. “The terrorists were either, killed, captured or had to flee.”