Marines capture, destroy large Iraqi insurgents' weapons stockpiles

20 May 2004 | Staff Sgt. Bill Lisbon 1st Marine Logistics Group

In the past week, Marines based here have unearthed some of the largest stockpiles of weapons found this year, which, left unfound, could have outfitted insurgents with the materials needed to construct improvised explosives and attack U.S. forces.

Discovered in various locations east of the camp by Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, more than 1,000 mortars, artillery shells and rockets -- not to mention a cornucopia of other weapons -- have been either captured or destroyed.

Now, as a result, Marines have stepped up the number of foot patrols they conduct, armed with metal detectors and shovels, in hopes of finding even more.

"We have had tremendous amounts of success in a short amount of time," said Capt. Adam T. Strickland, 32, a platoon commander with the battalion which, falls under tactical control of 1st Force Service Support Group here.

During a routine patrol May 13, Marines searched a culvert running under a stretch of train tracks only to find dozens of mortar rounds wrapped in an old inner tube. When the Marines spotted rockets peeking through the ground, they realized they were standing on top of a hidden cache of weapons. In the next few moments, Marines dropped down on their hands and knees and dug through the dirt, uncovering more munitions.

"It was like an Easter egg hunt," said squad leader Sgt. Dorelle M. Harrison, a 21-year-old a native of Hartford, Conn., whose Marines stumbled upon these weapons.

The find seemed to set off a chain reaction.

On May 16, the company went hunting specifically for weapons. In just a few hours the Marines had located six separate piles, which contained a pair of surface-to-air missiles, two dozen rockets and more than 100 rocket-propelled grenades. 

During a search of a nearby village on May 18, more than 200 mortar and artillery shells were uncovered.

Yet again, on May 20, a tip from a shepherd led Marines to a stash of rifle grenades and RPGs. Earlier on the same day; they found artillery shells, mortar rounds and TNT.

Some of the most harmless looking items found were perhaps the most disturbing. Several 9-volt batteries and thin copper wire discovered in one of the caches could have been used to build improvised detonators for roadside bombs.

Insurgents commonly rig artillery shells to explode along supply routes hoping to disrupt convoys by crippling vehicles and killing Marines, said Master Sgt. Charles D. Goolsby, 39, an explosive ordnance disposal technician with Marine Wing Support Squadron 374, who provides bomb disposal services around Camp Taqaddum.

Five of the artillery shells found May 18, were already wired with detonation cord and plastic explosives when they were discovered.

What the Marines have come to find is that insurgents are hiding weapons in fields and palm groves near roads so that they can access them easily, said Sgt. Kenneth C. Cyr, a 27-year-old squad leader from Prairie Grove, Ark.

In addition to the bombs, the company captured a dozen mortar systems and two homemade rocket launchers possibly used to lob ordnance at Marine bases. While most of the ordnance is destroyed off base by the squadron's bomb experts, some of the weapons are carried back to Taqaddum and displayed for Marines to see. But in the end, all are demolished.

These record finds can be attributed to the company's police-themed tactic: walk the beat.

"Walk the ground. Get to know the people. Earn their trust. We've been doing that and I think, if anything, we've shown that we have altruistic motives here," said Strickland, a native of Richmond, Va.

Shortly after the battalion's Headquarters and Support Company took over guard duty of Camp Taqaddum from the Army in late March, Weapons Company ventured "outside the wire," in an effort to push back any insurgents located close enough to the base to use mortars and rockets.

In the past several weeks, and in an effort to follow in the wake caused by adjacent infantry battalions of the 1st Marine Division who shifted their focus to Fallujah, the company stepped up its operations by patrolling roads, walking through villages and talking with the locals.

"You can't get a feel for what's going on at 40 mph through bulletproof glass and armor," Strickland said.

The human interaction has paid off. Many of the company's Marines have stories about locals approaching them to give them tidbits of intelligence.

Between May 4-7, members of the battalion performed nearly 300 "soft knocks," where Marines went door to door, and rather than bursting into homes, they simply knocked on the front door, talked with the head of the family and asked to search the house for weapons.

The Coalition Provisional Authority allows one rifle and 30 rounds to be kept in each Iraqi household for home protection. During the soft-knock operation alone, however, the Marines uncovered two mortar launchers, three heavy machine guns, two rocket launchers as well as ten rifles and 1,000 rounds of ammunition, said Strickland.

In the past month, attacks against Camp Taqaddum have been sparse.

"It's not that the threat's not there. The reason we're not being hit is because we're taking all their weapons," said Strickland.

Shortly after making this statement, two mortar rounds landed on the camp, signaling that the aptly named Weapons Company has more work ahead of it.
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