On the brink of Iraq's historic election on Jan. 30, Correspondent Dan Rather reports from the "Triangle of Death," a region notorious for attacks on Iraqi and multi-national forces.
It's been a difficult mission for Sgt. Kevin Lewis and the rest of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. They travel constantly on dangerous roads: 31 men have died here and more than 300 have been injured by roadside bombs, hidden by an enemy they rarely see.
We were heading to a remote outpost in the town of Ludifayah. Ten of the men based there have died. Still, these Marines insist the enemy is losing, at least in this key area.
"They've got plenty of ammunition," says one Marine. "I think they are running out of bodies pretty soon to plant those IEDs."
IEDs are what the Marines call the roadside bombs. They have killed three men in Sgt. Eric Abbott's squad.
Are those kinds of incidents increasing, decreasing or about the same as when Abbott first got there? "I believe they are definitely decreasing since we have been here," says Abbott.
Is the election, scheduled for Jan. 30, going to come off well? "I believe we are going to make it happen," says Abbott.
So does the commanding officer, Col. Ron Johnson, a 25-year Marine veteran. "I don't think it will be spot-free incident," he says. "But I think you'll see you'll be pleasantly surprised about the number of Iraqi citizens who want to put their name on a piece of paper."
Col. Johnson has made it a priority to keep his troops highly visible That's why he set up a small outpost in the town of Hasweh, after bombers leveled the police station. A platoon of 40 Marines moved into the building next door.
Johnson says the Marine presence has changed life in Hasweh. His convoys are being attacked much less frequently. The market is busy. Schools, which were closed last year, are open now. And there is water and electricity most of the time.
But Johnson doesn't think that story is getting out. Neither does Sgt. Lewis. "I am tired of hearing the crap," says Lewis. "The whole, well, 'We are barely hanging on, we're losing, the insurgency is growing.' All that. We are doing fine. It's just a small, a small amount of people out there causing the problems. I mean, it is a small number, and we're killing them."
The Marines are out every day looking for the enemy, and trying to round up the old artillery shells used to make the deadly car bombs. The ammunition is everywhere.
Johnson's men thought some of it might be hidden in a van they spotted by the road. So they cordoned the area off while the bomb squad went to work and blew it up safely.
From the force of the explosion, the Marines concluded there was a cache of 12 to 15 artillery shells inside the van. "I'm just glad none of our guys were coming by there when that thing went off," says one Marine. "Could have gotten a lot of people hurt."
But no one was hurt, thanks to an Iraqi teenager who reported the suspicious van to the police. Johnson believes there are approximately 1,500 insurgents still on the loose in the Triangle of Death. At a briefing, he was told about one group said to be planning an election-day attack with 10 barrels of explosives.
60 Minutes joined a team of Marines and Iraqi commandos when they launched a raid before dawn the next morning.
Capt. Tad Douglas and his team flew on six transport helicopters to the town of Jabella. As soon as they arrived, they advanced on one building, but there was no one inside.
Inside the next building, two men were sleeping. Surprised, they screamed as they were rousted from their beds. Douglas and his men moved quickly, finding guns and the type of wiring used to make roadside explosive devices. The Marine commandos also found documents indicating one of the suspects was a former Iraqi intelligence officer.
By dawn, the Marines had rounded up 13 more suspects and returned them to base camp to be interrogated. They also discovered 2,000 rounds of ammunition and a few more weapons, including an Iranian assault rifle hidden in one of the bedrooms.
"All of the weapons we found were all lubed up; all the ammunition was cleaned with solvent, so everything had all been taken care of to be ready for the election," says Douglas.
The Marines never retrieved the 10 barrels of explosives they set out to find. But as they do after each mission, they flew back to their base camp to brief Col. Johnson. He said he'd add the names of the detainees to a detailed database showing the 1,000 suspects already in custody, and their links to other known or suspected insurgents still out there somewhere.
Who are these people who are causing the trouble? Who is it that they are fighting?
"What we got out here is a bunch of different people who have different goals and objectives. We got terrorists who just want to maim and kill people," says Johnson. "Baathists who have lost their big power base, their position in life. We have unemployed people who just need a job."
Are they fighting people who are, one way or the other, connected to Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or one of the major terrorist leaders?
"I do not dispute that bin Laden and Zarqawi are providing a message for these people, but to say that they are linked is really stretching it," says Johnson. "What we have here is a multitude of different groups that all have their own goals and objectives."
There are also plenty of low-level criminals, the colonel thinks, who are ready to sell all the individual ingredients to make a roadside bomb.
"The best analogy that I can give you is if you can remember the Gambino crime family in New York. That's what we're dealing with here," says Johnson. "Gangsters, criminals, thugs who are opportunists, who want to make some money and they are trying to take advantage of the situation. But as soon as one gets in the way, they have no hesitation about going over and trying to whack the other guy."
And, the colonel acknowledges, he's been more successful in arresting the Mafia-like foot soldiers than the syndicate bosses who are financing the local terror attacks.
With four days to the election, Col. Johnson's Marines are changing tactics. They had been very publicly showing force, but on Election Day, they hope to be nearly invisible.
They'll come in for backup if there are widespread terror attacks. But the Iraqi police are to handle polling place security, and if they need backup, they won't call the Marines first. Instead, they'll call up a special unit sponsored and trained by Johnson's men, an Iraqi SWAT team from the town of Hila.
There is widespread criticism all over the country of the ineffectiveness of the Iraqi police and security forces. And there are also reports of widespread defections. But the Marines say they can rely on this SWAT team.
Staff Sgt. Dutch Hoemann just wishes he had more time to train the Iraqis. "This is what we consider a short course. The original squad crew before they upped the numbers got a two to four week training package," says Hoemann. "These gentlemen here are getting four days. It's a short course. We're getting ready for the election, and they've come a long way."
Johnson is doing his best to open roads, secure bridges and increase security at roadblocks. He is posting wanted signs for known killers and troublemakers. And he's about to set up hundreds of barriers at polling places, in an effort to stop suicide bombers.
"The worst thing that could happen to us is a suicide vehicle bomb to come during the day to the election centers and attack us," says Johnson. "We expect that to happen. In some places, we do. Somewhere, it is going to happen."
Col. Johnson is hoping it doesn't happen in the Triangle of Death. He's keeping his fingers crossed that his strategy will keep working. Not only because Iraqis will be able to vote, but because it will honor the lives of the men he's lost.
"When one of these Marines comes up to you and says, 'I am glad to be here. I am a Marine to the core. But tell me, is it worth it?' What do you tell them," asks Rather.
"Lives are definitely going to be missed, but our efforts here, I think, are going to be worth it. And I think we all we feel the same way," says Johnson.
"Are we going to miss our guys that we lost? You are damned right, because when we are old and gray, sitting down in the soldier's, sailor's home, those guys are still going to be young. We are going to have gray hair, and we are going to think about them, just the way they were, and we are going to miss them."