WEB SPECIAL - War on Terror Update

War on Terror Special report 26.5.05

US Marines on night patrol in Iraq during Operation Matador, while at sea the USS Carl Vinson prepares for another air strike. Photos: US DoD.

Matador Takes The Bull By The Horns

Aircraft from the USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group recently supported the biggest operation in Iraq since the seizure of Fallujah some six months ago.

The week-long Operation Matador was launched on May 9 in the north western Anbar province near the Syrian border. One thousand US Marines from two Regimental Combat Teams in the 2nd Marine Division, swept villages for insurgents near Qaim, north of the Euphrates. The Leathernecks found themselves up against a sizable and skilled opposition, some of whom were reportedly in uniform and wore bullet-proof vests. The American marines suffered nine dead and 40 wounded and, according to US military sources, over 125 insurgents were killed in the heavy fighting. More than half of the insurgent fatalities occurred when the marines made their crossing of the Euphrates, near Ubaydi, on the first day of Op Matador. After the US Army's 814th Multi-Role Bridge Company threw a pontoon over the river the marines were to act as a blocking force in support of Special Operations units scouring a local cave network. However, the fighting soon escalated when terrorists attacked a marine convoy near Qaim with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, roadside bombs, and two suicide car bombs. A marine M1A1 Abrams tank destroyed one car bomb, while the second succeeded in damaging an armoured Humvee jeep. Operation Matador was not specifically targeting Al-Qaeda terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who reportedly was seen in the area during early May but "it would be a welcome event to come across him or his body," remarked Marine Lieutenant General James T. Conway during the operation.

Lt Gen Conway, who is based at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. but has twice commanded US Marines in Iraq, said the operation was focused on eliminating insurgents and foreign fighters in the region, which is also a known weapons smuggling route. Anbar province has been used as a staging area where insurgents receive weapons and equipment for their attacks on the key cities of Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul. General Conway added the region had witnessed a build-up of insurgents since the fall of Fallujah. The marines' strategy is the same one used elsewhere in Iraq, he said, adding: "Where we find insurgents, we will attack them, and we will capture and kill them if they resist."

Although refusing to discuss tactics while the operation was under way, General Conway said the Coalition was depending heavily on a combined arms effort. The Marines' 2nd Regimental Combat Team was a key player, he said. As well as killing large numbers of insurgents, Operation Matador also seized considerable quantities of arms and ammunition. In one instance the marines discovered seventeen 107mm rockets, thirty-five 115 mm tank rounds, fourteen 130mm artillery shells, eight 155 mm artillery shells, and an assortment of mortar and anti-aircraft rounds. In another sweep they captured 335 artillery rounds, 13 mortar rounds and four rockets, all of which could have been used to make improvised explosive devices.

During Op Matador, aircraft of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 323 and F/A-18C Hornet fighter jets assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron One Four Seven (VFA-147) from the USS Carl Vinson were involved in softening up insurgents.

The Carl Vinson CSG consists of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, the guided-missile destroyers USS O'Kane and USS Mustin, the fast-combat support ship USS Camden and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11. The Vinson's aircraft are flying patrols not only over Iraq and but also the Gulf, to lend assistance to multi-national forces. The surface ships, under the command of Destroyer Squadron 31 have been conducting Maritime Security Operations (MSO) to protect the off-shore infrastructure, including Iraqi oil platforms.

Saipan Leads Surge Deployment

Pictured: The USS Saipan deploying on her mission to combat terrorism. Photo: US Navy.

The assault carrier USS Saipan has been deployed at short notice with other American warships on a three-month mission to work with allies in the War on Terrorism.

The Saipan left Norfolk Naval Station along with the frigate USS Nicholas and assault ship USS Nashville. The Tomahawk-armed cruiser USS Philippine Sea, from Naval Station Mayport, Fla, and the USS Gunston Hall from Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Va, joined the task group later.

US Navy sources explained that the deployment was being carried out under the Fleet Response Plan (FRP), and would provide extra assets in the European and Middle East waters.

"Make no mistake, we are at war," said Vice Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, commander, US 2nd Fleet as the ships deployed. "The FRP is all about getting ready sooner, and remaining ready longer, and the sailors on these ships are responding tremendously."

• For more reports on US and British naval forces in the Gulf, see WARSHIPS IFR magazine.