26th MEU (SOC) Force Recon catches looters

24 Apr 2003 | Capt. James D. Jarvis

In the city of Mosul, one of the busiest coalition units in recent weeks has been the Force Reconnaissance Platoon of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable).  In addition to their numerous daily vehicular patrols and scout sniper positions overlooking the former Iraqi Fifth Corps' ammunition supply point, 'Force Recon' Marines have taken to the streets to try to stem the tide of the widespread looting of ammunition and weapons here.

"When we arrived in Mosul April 11th, Fifth Corps' ammunition supply point was wide open for anyone who wanted weapons and ammunition," said the Force Recon platoon commander, Capt. Andrew Christian, 33, of Neenah, Wisc.  "With no one to guard those large weapons caches and most of their locks having been cut, broken or smashed, crates of rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), mortar rounds, shoulder-fired missiles, explosives, assorted ammunition and small arms were rapidly disappearing," he said.

With security in post-war Iraq a key requirement for large-scale reconstruction efforts, preventing these kinds of weapons and ammunition from ending up in the hands of terrorist groups or supporters of the former regime is of prime concern.  For this reason, the Marines and U.S. Special Forces here have strived to stop the looting of hundreds of stockpiles of ammunition and weapons and to retake these items from looters as they come across them during their numerous patrols throughout the city. 

"Our biggest fear is to have locals taking RPG's, missiles and explosives and selling them to the highest bidder," Christian said.  "Once they're in the wrong hands, they could resurface in the U.S. in a terrorist attack and we want to prevent that here and now."

Given the hazards to the local community and to follow-on military forces, Col. Andrew P. Frick, 26th MEU (SOC) Commanding Officer, made the decision to try to interrupt the organized flow of these arms and ammunition in trucks or wagons used by the looters, until heavier U.S. Army forces could arrive and commit the personnel needed to secure the entire site.  With the Force Recon Platoon, Frick had a force with robust communications and firepower that could report and assess the situation and respond accordingly.

"The average age of my Marines is 27 years old, so their maturity ensures that they will use the appropriate level of force for the level of threat that's there," Christian said.  "This is a hard environment to work in because you have up to five different uniformed forces to consider including the uniformed Mosul police force, the Peshmerga forces, the Free Iraqi Fighters, local Kurds with AK-47's and others.  A lot of times, you may receive fire from somewhere and you have to quickly assess if the source was friend or foe."

"But, my guys' maturity helps in that we have seen kids as young as 9 years old and old ladies carrying crates of ammunition from the bunkers, " said Christian.  "So, we need to be able to determine whether it is just someone trying to make some money for food or wishing to do us harm with those weapons."

"I wish that we could have done a little bit more here," said Sgt. Travis Haley, 27, a Force Recon operator from Dunnellon, FL.  "We brought a smaller slice of the MEU than we usually do, so we were without our Cobras [AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters] and many of our ground vehicles.  We had a lot of potential to do great things, such as securing the armories and bunkers, but simply not the personnel and close air support to meet our capabilities."

With the arrival of the 101st Airborne Division from Baghdad and their mechanized vehicles and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, I would expect that the ammunition supply point would be secured within the next 24 hours said Christian.  "The 101st have been doing numerous 'gun runs' with the Apaches and their vehicles are now all over the area, so those illegal activities that we saw early on should cease," he said.

For more information on the 26th MEU (SOC) in Iraq, visit them on the web at www.26meu.usmc.mil.