A Deadly Week as Marines Search for Insurgents in Iraq
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
More than 20 Marines have been killed this week in counterinsurgency operations in the Euphrates River Valley northwest of Baghdad. Fourteen of them died yesterday when their assault vehicle hit an explosive device near the town of Hadithah. That was one of the deadliest single incidents for US forces since the war began. President Bush spoke about the dead yesterday in a speech in Grapevine, Texas.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our men and women who've lost their lives in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in this war on terror have died in a noble cause and a selfless cause. Their families can know that American citizens pray for them.
WERTHEIMER: Joining us now from Baghdad is Los Angeles Times correspondent John Hendren.
What more can you tell us about the circumstances of yesterday's incident?
Mr. JOHN HENDREN (Los Angeles Times): Well, Marines tell us that it was one of the largest roadside bombs they've ever seen. It actually managed to penetrate the armor of an amphibious assault vehicle, killing 14 people inside. That's in part because the Marines pack a lot of people into their vehicles. The bomb was so big that it actually flipped the vehicle over and apparently trapped at least some of the people inside. It's not clear how many were killed in the initial explosion and how many were killed in the fire afterwards.
WERTHEIMER: Is the type of vehicle the Marines were traveling in designed to withstand some level of explosion?
Mr. HENDREN: Yes, but it's not designed to withstand the kind of direct explosion that it experienced yesterday. An M1 tank is designed to do that and even some of those have been penetrated in the past, but this is a more lightly armored vehicle that's really designed to carry troops and storm beachheads.
WERTHEIMER: Earlier in the week, six Marines were killed in an insurgent ambush in the same area. Do you know anything more about what happened in the earlier incident?
Mr. HENDREN: Well, that was also in Hadithah. This is all part of an accelerated operation to seize control of western Iraq and in particular the border with Syria where US military commanders believe that an increasingly lethal collection of bombs and foreign fighters is coming across. They say there's as many as 100 to 200 foreign fighters coming across there each month and that they're carrying car bombs and other explosives.
WERTHEIMER: You've spent some time embedded with Marine units in that area. Can you describe what exactly they are doing?
Mr. HENDREN: What they're really doing is trying to clear out the area of insurgents. They're doing house-to-house searches. They're doing present patrols, a broad number of things, not all of which I think we know.
WERTHEIMER: Do you have any notion of whether the Marines are having any success?
Mr. HENDREN: No. We know that whatever they're doing, the insurgents are pushing back. They seem to be noticing the increased presence. Now the Marines are operating south of the Euphrates. The Army has moved down to occupying an area north of the Euphrates that had been largely unpatrolled by American troops who would go there on occasion, perform operations and then leave. They now have a base in a place called Rahlah(ph) in a large swath of territory leading to the Syrian border where they previously had no long-term bases at all.
WERTHEIMER: I just wanted to ask you one more thing about that explosion. We had the impression that this was an unusually large explosion, this was the kind of thing that had not been seen before.
Mr. HENDREN: That is true. The Marines say it may be the largest roadside bomb that they've seen in western Iraq since the war began two years ago. One of the difficulties in making such big bombs is that you've actually got a huge area that you've got to hide and so you can do it on dirt roads but you can't do it everywhere.
WERTHEIMER: John Hendren, thank you very much.
Mr. HENDREN: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: John Hendren is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. We reached him in Baghdad.