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The River Rats of Ramadi

For coalition forces Ramadi is the most dangerous city in Iraq. The capital of sprawling Al Anbar province in western Iraq, the city lies 65 miles west of Baghdad. Ramadi is the focal point of the insurgency in Anbar, as foreign terrorists cross the borders and follow the Euphrates valley down towards the city. There's none of the sectarian violence here that has ripped apart Baghdad in the last two years. The battle lines are more clearly drawn: it's insurgents versus Americans, and Ramadi is the battleground.

But Ramadi is also unusual in that it is bordered on three sides by water. As the Euphrates forges down from the northwest, the river funnels eastwards above the city on its way towards Fallujah. A huge canal also directs the river to the south of Ramadi, where it curls 'round before emptying into the vast Lake Habbaniyah. This is why Ramadi is home to a small platoon of specialist U.S. Marines and their high-tech boats. The Marines of the 3rd Dam Support Unit (DSU) have come down from Haditha farther upriver to patrol the river and canal here in their heavily armored motorboats, providing a unique capability.

"All the foreign insurgents who get into the city from the north have to cross the river," says Capt. Mike Weston, a Marine officer with some hard-earned views on Iraq. "We call them ‘rat lines.' Ramadi is totally isolated by the river and canal, so to get in here, they have to get their toes wet. And hopefully, that's when we'll catch them. We're still figuring out how to shut them down completely, since we've only been out here for six months and we're making it up as we go along."

Weston's Marines use the Small Unit Riverine Craft, or SURC. Weighing in at ten tons—12 tons with all the armor they've added—the SURCs are powered by twin 440-hp Yanmars mated to waterjets. "Flat-out we'll push 38 knots," says Lance-Corporal Marcus Davis, one of the engine techs. "They would do more, but we've stolen so much armor for our boats, it's slowed them down some." Stolen? "Sure, we've pulled armor off Humvees, seven-ton trucks, even Bradley tanks—anywhere we can find half-inch steel, we've welded it on," continues Davis. "We're exposed in the boats, so we decided to customize them. The rubber shoulders around the boats have proven remarkably adept at deflecting RPG rounds—we even had one bounce off the side—but speed and firepower are our two best friends when it comes to getting out of trouble here."

And firepower is not something these boats are lacking. On the transom sits an M2 .50-caliber machine gun, unchanged in more than 60 years but still capable of sawing a car in two with its sausage-size rounds. On her bow's port side is an M240 medium machine gun, only 7.62 mm in size but dependable and accurate to one mile. Adjacent from here sits the piece de resistance, the almighty GAU-17 minigun. Delivering an incredible 50 rounds per second through six barrels rotating at 4000 rpm, the GAU saturates the target with a wall of lead through which nothing can survive. "The boys call her Caprice," laughs Weston.

At 5 a.m. the following day, we leave the security of Camp Ramadi with two SURCs being towed on trailers by seven-ton trucks. As the trucks pull out of the gates, the Marines busy themselves with their M4 rifles and M203 grenade launchers. "Lock and load!" goes up the call, and with a synchronized clatter 18 rifle bolts slam home. We're out of the wire and lumbering through some of the most hostile territory in the world at a sitting-duck 25 mph. Fifteen minutes later and without incident, the boats launch into the calm waters of the Euphrates, and we slip soundlessly some 22 miles eastwards, looking for weapons caches hidden on the riverbank.

Riding on the deck of a motorboat through the midst of all this urban carnage is surreal, and I hunker down on the deck and doze off as the boats cut through the gloom. The throbbing of the diesels and slap of the water against the hull are a tonic, a thousand miles away from the shattered glass and explosions of the city. From the river Ramadi appears tranquil, and I sleep with my head on my knees. I'm woken 20 minutes later by a blast of static over the SURC's radio. "Gamewarden Niner, Gamewarden Nine. This is Javelin Six, approaching your position, four klicks out. Visibility is terrible, will advise." As the first glimmers of light come up, the serenity of the river is shattered by the Apache helicopter that thuds briefly overhead, dipping its nose in recognition of our snub-nosed boats before sweeping the area around us. It's hard to make out the riverbank 80 feet away, so the gunship must be flying blind.

When we reach the Drop Point One, the SURC provides cover as we run ashore. Nine heavily armed jarheads drop into the mud, and the sweep begins, working the riverbank towards a series of small settlements. It's slow work, poking around for bombs and weapons. Every loose bit of soil is turned over, every ramshackle hut probed, and within 20 minutes they've unearthed 800 pounds of mortar propellant, shell casings, and P4 explosive. The search continues up-river, the Marines throwing a wide cordon 160 feet either side of the search party. We enter an orange grove lashed with mortar craters, and a large pile of empty cases signifies a contact here not long ago. One Marine peers over my shoulder: "AK-47 rounds. We take fire from these groves all the time. Those'll be our mortars landing in their positions." He turns away. "You never know if you got 'em or not. The Hajjis carry their dead off in a hurry, so it's hard to get a proper body count."

Despite the signs of warfare all around, this is as peaceful as it gets in Iraq today. Away from the constant undercurrent of violence and mistrust, life on the riverbank is serene. There are no IEDs here, the fields are well tended, and even the farmhouses are freshly painted. It lulls you into a false sense of security, but the threat of sniper fire here is as real as ever. The Marines continue to pull out mortar casings, plastic explosive, and an RPG. This is turning into quite a find.

As we bundle all the weapons for a controlled detonation, a group of kids waving white flags comes running up. The Marine interpreter pumps them for information, asking them who they've seen on the riverbank. The answer, understandably, is always the same. Nobody's seen anything, nobody knows anything. "They're lying. This is a small community, and everyone knows exactly what goes on around here," he tells me. Then it's the children's turn to ask us questions. "How big are your boats, can we go on them? Where do you start from? What time are you leaving from here?" Ten-year-old kids acting as intelligence for their older brothers—it's time for us to leave.

With the weapons bundled into a trench, two sticks of C4 explosive are thrown on top, and the fuse is lit. An almighty bang signals the end of the mission in this area, and the SURCs surge ashore to pick us up. The drivers stick the throttles right through the gate, and we're flying back the way we came to the next mission, cutting through the Euphrates at 35 knots. "Contact!" yells a Marine as a half-dozen poorly aimed AK rounds pop overhead from the reeds on the north shore of the river. The Marines prepare to return fire, but the contact is so fleeting and we're gone so fast that a firefight never erupts. "We left before the local insurgents could rally the troops properly," shouts Weston as the boats pound their way up the river. "That's why the kids wanted to know what time we left." With no further contacts, the SURCs assemble at the jetty to pick up another squad of Marines, and off we go again, heading back the way we've come. Except maybe this time the insurgents will be ready.

Heavy Water: SURC boats

SURCs are 40 feet long and have a draft of two feet, although at speed that draft is as little as nine inches. With 880 hp going through twin waterjets, the boats are incredibly maneuverable, capable of coming to a complete stop from 35 knots in a single boat's length. And by dropping a single bucket, they can pull a J-turn—basically a complete U-turn—also at speed. There are three weapon stations and special fitments for the GAU-17 minigun and M19 grenade launcher. The GAU needs two tractor batteries, one to operate the motor and one to operate the belt feed. And that's only just enough power. All SURCs have smoke and phosphorous launchers and can carry 18 fully tooled-up Marines. Infrared and thermal imaging means the boats can run at speed at night with no lights on, and a comprehensive radar provides detailed terrain mapping up to 500 feet off the nose.

The best-kept secret according to Lance-Corporal Marcus Davis? "We actually do have a pair of water skis which have been used a few times in theater. Purely for strategic purposes, you understand."—J.C.

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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