The Debacle Known as Operation Matador

From Holden:

In the U.S. military, old habits die hard: Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out.

When foreign fighters poured into villages with jihad on their minds and weapons in their hands, some Iraqi tribesmen in western desert towns fought back.

They set up checkpoints to filter out the foreigners. They burned down suspected insurgent safe houses. They called their fellow tribesmen in Baghdad and other urban areas for backup.

And when they still couldn’t uproot the terrorists streaming in from Syria, tribal leaders said, they took a most unusual step: They asked the Americans for help.

The U.S. military hails last week’s Operation Matador as a success that killed more than 125 insurgents. But local tribesmen said it was a disaster for their communities and has made them leery of ever again assisting American or Iraqi forces.


In interviews, influential tribal leaders and many residents of the remote border towns said the 1,000 U.S. troops who swept into their territories in the weeklong campaign that ended over the weekend didn’t distinguish between the Iraqis who supported the United States and the fighters battling it.

“The Americans were bombing whole villages and saying they were only after the foreigners,” said Fasal al Goud, a former governor of Anbar province who said he asked U.S. forces for help on behalf of the tribes. “An AK-47 can’t distinguish between a terrorist and a tribesman, so how could a missile or tank?”

Al Goud was the only tribal leader who spoke on the record. Two others reached by phone in western villages expressed similar views, but said they didn’t want their names published because the foreign insurgents were still holding some of their tribesmen hostage.


Operation Matador began with the Marines sweeping into the Qaim area in armored vehicles, backed up by helicopter gunships. They pummeled suspected insurgent safe houses, flattening parts of the villages and killing armed men. Nine Marines died in combat and 40 were wounded, according to the military.

When the offensive ended, however, angry residents returned to find blocks of destruction. Men who’d stayed behind to help were found dead in shot-up houses. Tribal leaders haven’t counted their dead; several families hadn’t yet returned to the area.

“We ran away because you didn’t know who was fighting who,” said Ahmed Mohammed, who works at a hospital north of Qaim. “Americans were fighting. The Albu Mahal were fighting. And Tawhid and Jihad were fighting.”

Capt. Jeff Pool, a Marine spokesman in Iraq, confirmed that Iraqi informants contributed to intelligence gathering for Matador but said there was no effort by the U.S. military to incorporate local tribes in its assault plans.


Pool and other military spokesmen didn’t respond to questions about whether U.S. troops had tried to contact any of the feuding forces in the area.

Deputy Defense Minister Shaways said it was extremely difficult to distinguish friend from foe in the midst of battle. He called Operation Matador a success, but acknowledged that some tribal leaders were upset by it. He said tribal leaders were expected to travel to Baghdad this week to discuss the aftermath of the campaign.

Quagmire Bonus, Support Our Troops! Edition

The WaPo reporter embedded with the Marines who carried out Operation Matador reveals that they were sent into combat with insufficient equipment.

MARGARET WARNER: The New York Times reported that the Marines have gone on a crash program to equip and armor themselves because they’re so upset about having the lack of sufficient armor. Were the Marines that you were embedded with, did they ever complain to you about their equipment?

ELLEN KNICKMEYER: You know, about the armor, they didn’t complain, but they did say they had just welded on a bunch of metals and so the vehicles that we were riding around in, they had just attached steel plates to them, or put steel plates on the bottom of the floor, to guard against mines and stuff. It’s something they had to do themselves.