HADITHA, Iraq -- While U.S. politicians and military leaders debate whether or not to send additional U.S. troops to Iraq, U.S. Marines here are taking weapons out of the hands of insurgents – one cache at a time.
Most recently, Marines from the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment discovered an anti-aircraft gun platform and several military munitions buried in northwest Haditha during cordon and search operations.
A detachment of combat engineers discovered the base plate when they “came upon a large metal object” while sweeping the region with a metal detector, according to Sgt. Matthew Canaga, a squad leader with the battalion’s Golf Company.
Canaga explained that they realized something big was buried there and suspected it to be some type of farming equipment. Instead, they found the base plate, along with an assortment of other weapons and munitions, to include tank rounds, one rocket propelled grenade launcher, three AK-47s and roughly 200 AK-47 rounds.
“It is significant,” said Canaga, a Loveland, Colo., native. “The AK-47s were well-lubed and the ammunition was basically new. It was all in good condition and could be used at any time.”
At first, the Marines weren’t sure exactly what they had found. But after combat engineers’ metal detectors ‘pinged’ over a 10-foot wide slab of ground, they knew they had found something significant, according to Lance Cpl. Michael A. Humphurie, one of Golf Company’s combat engineers.
“We didn’t know what it was at first,” said Humphurie. “[After digging] we saw something green and knew it was some kind of weapon but didn’t know until the end.”
“It’s obviously something they were using as a staging point,” added Canaga.
The battalion, nicknamed the “Magnificent Bastards,” is part of a surge of hundreds of additional U.S. troops into the volatile western Anbar Province late last month in an attempt to keep the region secure and allow for the introduction of additional Iraqi security forces, according to U.S. military commanders in Anbar Province.
The cache is one of more than 30 found since mid December by Marines in the Haditha “Triad” region, where U.S. forces recently constructed an eight foot-high dirt berm around the Triad’s three cities of Haqlaniyah, Barwanah and Haditha. The berm, along with several traffic control points, is intended to regulate who is coming in and out of the city – a crucial step to improving security conditions for locals, according to the top U.S. military officials in Iraq’s western Al Anbar Province.
While the wall of dirt is intended to keep locals safe by keeping insurgents out of the cities, Marines here are continually finding more and more weapons caches, keeping weapons and roadside bomb-making material out of the hands of the insurgents.
“It might not stop any attacks [by finding the cache], but it is definitely a set-back for them,” said Canaga after Golf Company’s most recent cache find.
Canaga attributes the success of the find to the know-how of the Company’s combat engineers, and their ability to use their metal detectors to find these hidden caches.
“To be honest, a squad of Marines on its own can find a lot of things, but the engineer attachments are the reason why we found the mount, the RPG launcher and the AK-47s,” said Canaga. “Without the engineers and their know-how, I don’t think we would have found most of that stuff.”
Marines have found everything from mortars to grenade fuses to rifles in recent weeks in the Haditha region since the addition of hundreds of U.S. troops and the berm’s construction.
Less than 24 hours after Golf Company’s find, the battalion’s Weapons Company discovered a smaller weapons cache consisting of a 57mm rocket and parts for 120mm mortars in Barwanah, a city of 20,000 located just southeast of Haditha, across the Euphrates River.
Earlier in the month, Golf Company’s 1st and 3rd Platoons turned up four weapons caches in three days in Haqlaniyah, a city of 20,000 located just south of Haditha. Those finds turned-up, among other items, more than 65 rocket-propelled grenades – a common weapon insurgents use during attacks against Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces.
Coupled with the recent find, the Marines here say they are slowly chipping away at insurgents’ morale. After finding the buried base plate, the Marines towed it through the city with a Humvee in hopes that local insurgents would see their weapon in the hands of Coalition Forces.
“The morale of any insurgents was definitely affected,” said Gunnery Sgt. Weslee Baker, platoon sergeant for Golf Company’s 4th Platoon. “There’s no telling how long ago it was buried or where the rest of it is, but they know that we have one of the major pieces.”
And as long as there are weapons caches to find, the Marines will keep looking, according to Baker. That often means spending hours patrolling on foot, coupled with 60-plus pounds of body armor and other protective gear.
Still, the effort is worth the reward, the Marines say.
“They continue to stay motivated to find these weapons so they can’t be used against any of our fellow Marines and Soldiers over here,” said Baker.
The battalion is part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), which deployed from southern California in September and arrived to Iraq in November.