Iron Fist, a battalion sized operation aimed at "al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists operating in and around Sadah", was announced on October 1. But a slightly older article in the San Francisco Chronicle described some of the events leading up to it. (This account was also referenced by Bill Roggio)
Saturday, October 1, 2005 -- Outside Sada, Iraq -- The mortar rounds hit in the early morning. The first one, a harbinger of the assault to come, whooshed up from the sleepy border town of Sada at around 5:30 a.m. Friday, landing in a burst of sparks several hundred yards short of the sandstone cliffs where U.S. Marines were camped out.
The article went on to describe how insurgents near a "blue mosque" in Sadah fired mortars and rockets at the 1st Mobile Assault Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment as they kept watch over the town from a position on some elevated ground. The Marines kept on sleeping for a while, then when the fire crept closer, jumped into their Humvees and relocated.
As the 3rd Battalion prepared for an assault on insurgents holed up in five Iraqi towns on the border with Syria, the mortar and rocket attack suggested that the Marines are up against a well-armed and determined enemy. ... Lt. Col. Julian Alford, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, stationed outside the western Iraqi town of Qaim, said fighters linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi control Sada and four other towns in this western corner of Anbar province, including Qaim.
The mortar position and a car loaded with ammunition was subsequently destroyed by a Marine helicopter gunship strike which resulted in secondary explosions. This tracks very closely with an account provided by the DOD and widely reported in various newspapers that "Coalition forces, including helicopters from 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, engaged and killed eight armed terrorists in fighting early Oct. 1, officials said." One aerial attack that was not widely reported elsewhere was a fixed wing strike.
An F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter, flying so high that it was invisible from the ground, dropped a 500-pound bomb known as Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, on the house, sending a plume of black smoke in the air. Several seconds later, there was a large cracking sound and the rumble of an explosion.
Assuming the San Francisco Chronicle article is accurate Iron Fist is a fairly broad operation aimed at clearing out "five Iraqi towns on the border with Syria" against an enemy named as "al Qaeda in Iraq". The context of the campaign is discussed by a New York Times article, datelined October 3 at an American base in Rawah (34.36 N 41 00 E), about 2/3 of the way to the Syrian border along the Euphrates from Ramadi.
the greater battle lies ahead, in the towns in the Euphrates River valley, where for nearly two years Mr. Zarqawi's fighters have had free rein, blowing up police stations and building a network of safe houses to stockpile weapons, make car bombs and move fighters into the country from Syria. ... Now, American and Iraqi forces are trying to change that by occupying towns like Rawa and installing Iraqi Army battalions to keep insurgents at bay ... they continued to carry out airstrikes and ground raids against insurgent safe houses along the Syrian border. ... Rawa, built on a finger of land formed by a hairpin turn in the Euphrates, overlooks a major bridge that was an important site in Mr. Zarqawi's network, military officials say. "We believe it was the last point at which they would decide to send the foreigners south to Baghdad or north across the desert to Mosul," said Lt. Col. Mark Davis, who commands the new Army outpost.
An examination (speculation alert) of Iraqi topography helps us understand the river and border campaigns better. Global Security has a trafficability map. Rawa is not so coincidentally on the northern limit of riverine Iraq along the Euphrates. It lies between what the US Naval Institutes in its article Military Geography of Iraq calls "Type I" terrain -- desert and steppe -- and "Type II" riverine Iraq. If the Syrian frontier is the "outer border" the "inner border" is the boundary between the Type I and Type II; between the desert and the sown. Riverine Iraq, the area which contains most the nation's population, cities and wealth is the prize; and only by traversing the Type I steppe and desert can the insurgents move from the Syrian border to attack Iraq's heartland. The area northwestward from Rawa to the Syrian border, south to the Jordanian frontier and north across the Euphrates to Mosul are all Type I and it is here where the battle for the borders is being fought. It has two characteristics which make it relatively ideal for as a line of communication for the insurgency. One is trafficability. According to the US Naval Institute article:
Roads that traverse region I to and from Iraq are few, but that deficiency inhibits military movement much less than elsewhere because the hard, flat surface simplifies cross-country trafficability for wheeled as well as tracked vehicles. The author, for example, long ago journeyed from Damascus to Baghdad by bus, with rare glimpses of any formal route.
The other is the presence of a large nomadic population for whom smuggling was a traditional activity and which is ethnically sympathetic to the former Ba'athist regime.
After the Marines anchored their western defense on Fallujah in November 2004 they have been steadily creeping westward within the riverine zone along the Euphrates. The latest efforts to secure Ramadi means they can move the Iraqi training center from Habbaniyah westward to Ramadi; and the probable objective is to extend the writ of the Iraqi government until it reaches Rawah. In the meantime, Task Force Olympia, with the 11th ACR and the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (including Michael Yon's 1st BN, 24th Infantry "Deuce Four") has been campaigning in Mosul along the Tigris. Therefore, returning to the New York Times account, whether Zarqawi decides "to send the foreigners south to Baghdad or north across the desert to Mosul" he will be running into hard stops and harassed in all the intervening ground. If the US is successful, it will greatly reduce the insurgency's prospects of holding out against the government. The insurgency will of course attempt everything in their power to bend back this creeping siege of their main strongholds and the repeated interdiction of their lines of communication with sanctuaries in Syria.