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    Out of Anbar

    Marines trumpet success in Iraqi province as they plan next moves
    By Bryan Mitchell - [email protected]
    Posted : September 08, 2008

    With the Corps’ mission in Iraq’s Anbar province all but stamped with the seal of success, Commandant Gen. James Conway is again positioning his service to take on a larger role in fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, where about 3,500 Marines have fought throughout much of 2008.
    Conway confirmed Aug. 27 that the handoff of Iraqi provisional control over Anbar is slated to occur during the first week of September, with the 28,000-strong Anbar police force and the Iraqi military officially assuming responsibility for securing the North Carolina-sized province.
    But the Corps’ success this year in “manhandling the Taliban” in Afghanistan, coupled with Conway’s desire to drive Afghan insurgents into mountain starvation and a host of other military and political conditions, means more Marines could be destined to battle the emerging threat there.
    “Young Marines join our Marine Corps to go and fight,” Conway said. “They are doing a very good job of this nation-building business, but it’s our view that if there is a stiffer fight somewhere else ... that’s where we need to be.”
    That soon could mean trading tea in Karmah and quiet combat outposts across Fallujah for humping mountainous badlands and protecting the lush river valleys of southern Afghanistan, where al-Qaida, the Taliban and a stream of foreign fighters are spoiling for a fight.
    A fragile peace

    The Corps has reason to boast of its success in Anbar, a region once considered lawless and host to several urban battles likely to be studied for generations.
    Fallujah I, the April 2004 response to the brutal slaying of four Blackwater USA contractors, and its robust sequel seven months later highlighted Anbar as one of the most perilous regions not just in Iraq, but in the world. During Fallujah II, which involved elements from the 1st and 7th Marine regiments, Marines fought through some of the toughest urban combat since Vietnam. April and November 2004 remain the two deadliest months for U.S. troops in Iraq.
    The 2006 battle for the Anbar capital of Ramadi was also devastating.
    It was there that Master-at-Arms 2nd Class (SEAL) Michael A. Monsoor earned the Medal of Honor for smothering a grenade with his body, while scores of Marines and soldiers perished wresting control of the city from insurgents.
    After those struggles, two factors turned Anbar, Conway said.
    One was the Marines’ persistence in building trust with the local Sunni population, which came with a heavy price. On June 26, Lt. Col. Max A. Galeai, Capt. Philip J. Dykeman and Cpl. Marcus W. Preudhomme were killed by a suicide bomber during a meeting with tribal sheiks, days ahead of the originally scheduled handover of security control. Galeai was the commander of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines.
    Iraqi dissent toward the terrorists, fueled by their wanton bombing campaign focused on civilians, has also swayed locals toward the Marines.
    Today, the top Marine officer in Iraq said Fallujah and Ramadi are models of calm and stability.
    “I would compare the level of violence in Ramadi and Fallujah to be lower than American cities of the same size,” Maj. Gen. John F. Kelly, commanding general of Multi-National Force-West, said in an Aug. 26 telephone interview.
    Kelly said there are roughly 16 “events” a week in Anbar, many of which can be attributed to criminal activity rather than terrorism. Conway boasted of about two to three attacks a week in Anbar and of driving virtually unnoticed down the province’s streets.
    Kelly said the al-Qaida-led insurgency in Anbar has been stripped of its boldness and reduced to a loosely organized group still capable of inflicting damage with suicide bombings and guerilla ambushes but a far less deadly foe for the Marines.
    Now Iraqi police patrol the cities, leaving Marines to hunt terrorists in Anbar’s sprawling hinterlands.
    “We’re very active now,” Kelly said. “Our Marines are out hunting down the most dangerous men on the planet. But they are the last remaining elements of al-Qaida in Iraq.”
    With large parts of the Anbar-based Iraqi army fighting in different parts of the country, increased responsibility is falling on the police to secure the tenuous peace.
    A compressed training schedule has helped boost the number of officers on the streets from 5,000 in 2005 to nearly 30,000 now, Kelly said. And they’re increasingly applying more sophisticated techniques needed not just to patrol neighborhoods and track terrorists, but to investigate crimes and prosecute criminals through the courts.
    “Are they perfect? No, they are not,” Kelly said. “Are they good enough? They certainly are, and we are still partnered with them across the region.”
    Kelly stressed that Marines are poised on the outskirts of cities to aid the fledgling security services, a situation Conway contends can’t last forever. He recalled a recent conversation with Anbar leaders about security.
    “They said ‘We’ve got it. We can handle it. But we love your Marines and want you to stay as long as you can be here. You are our best friend,’” Conway said. “Obviously, we can’t have it both ways.”
    Despite the continuing challenges, Conway was steadfast about the need to draw down Marines in Anbar.
    “I think it should be readily evident that the force that we needed in 2005 and 2006 to fight the insurgency is not the force that we need there to try to bring the government and the Sunnis back together,” Conway said. “I think, in time, there is going to have to be a relative drawdown. I do know that 25,000 Marines in the province are probably an excessive need.”
    But success in Iraq may have prompted regression in Afghanistan, where many contend that terrorists groups have refocused their efforts.
    In July, the death toll in Afghanistan topped the number of coalition dead in Iraq for the first time. The Corps’ so-called “Long War” has shifted.
    The rising threat

    Conway anticipated the Corps’ predicament when the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, deployed to Afghanistan this spring, to provide a surge of forces there.
    “I said, with all due respect ... ‘let me predict something: Commanders will fall in love with the Marines because they will do a great job,’” Conway said. “There will be a request for an extension. There will be requests to replace them with other Marines.”
    The Marines were, in fact, extended. And if new Marines are to fall in behind those slated to depart in November, a decision would have to be made soon.
    That could come in a variety of forms. The 26th MEU departed North Carolina in August for an undisclosed location in the Middle East, while the 13th MEU is slated to push out of Southern California in January.
    Army Gen. David Petraeus, incoming commander of U.S. Central Command, is slated to announce this month whether security gains in Iraq warrant increased withdrawals. A change in who occupies the White House come January could also factor into the decision.
    Additionally, increasing pressure from the Iraqi government to force America’s hand in inking a deal to redeploy the majority of its troops from Iraq is certain to contribute to the calculus.
    The bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the 2001 toppling of the Taliban has translated into just the opposite situation, with a U.S.-led NATO coalition pointing fingers over unequal distribution of responsibility and which members will provide additional combat forces.
    “Everyone seems to agree that additional forces are the ideal course of action for preventing a Taliban comeback,” Conway said. “But just, ‘Where are they to come from?’ is up for discussion.”
    The need is urgent, as the death toll for civilians and coalition troops is rising fast. This summer alone, dozens were killed in a car bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, while nine U.S. soldiers died in an insurgent attempt to overrun an isolated mountain outpost, and 10 French troops died in a Taliban ambush.
    The Marines in Afghanistan have suffered 18 fatalities this year, eight less than a far greater number of troops serving in Anbar, but Conway contends Marines have inflicted far more punishment on the Taliban. He also argues that Anbar-like success demands continuity.
    Carter Malkasian, director of stability and development at the Center for Naval Analyses, said some Anbar lessons are applicable to Afghanistan.
    “Protecting the population, setting up outposts, getting out of one’s vehicle and going to patrol is even more important in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq,” Malkasian said. “Taking care of the population and making sure they are secure is more important than almost anything else.”
    But vast differences exist between the two theaters.
    Iraq is far more secular, modern and urban. The division between Shiite and Sunni is not as pronounced in Afghanistan, but ethnic conflicts between the majority Pashtun and minority sects can create friction, Malkasian said.
    While Iran has been accused of supporting Shiite insurgents in Iraq, Pakistan has been charged with not doing enough to stem the flow of foreign fighters from crossing into Afghanistan along its porous border.
    The Pakistan predicament remains central to the conflict in Afghanistan, and increased violence there raises the specter for further difficulties where Marines fight. Conway was originally slated to visit the nation during his recent trip to the region, but he opted to forgo the stop because of political and security considerations.
    “Pakistan is a tough nut to crack. It’s going to require the Pakistanis to resolve the problem,” he said.
    For now, Conway contends the Marines are poised to employ a strategy inspired by the French-backed counterinsurgency campaign in Algeria, forcing the insurgents out of the cities and into the badlands.
    “Sooner or later they get hungry. They starve to death,” he said. “Not a lot of things to grow on those rocky bluffs.”
    Anbar: a timeline Significant events in Anbar province since the beginning of the Iraq invasion in 2003:


    Nov. 2: A Chinook transport helicopter is shot down near Fallujah, killing 16 soldiers and wounding 26.

    Jan. 8: A Black Hawk medevac helicopter, possibly hit by a rocket, crashes near Fallujah, killing nine soldiers.
    Feb. 14: An assault by dozens of insurgents on a police station kills 25 people in Fallujah, most of them Iraqi policemen.
    March 31: Four private security employees are ambushed and killed in Fallujah, and their bodies are hung on a bridge. U.S. forces later attack the city in some of the first major urban battles against Sunni insurgents.
    April 5: Marines seal off Fallujah; siege begins.
    May 1: Under mounting international criticism, all 700 Marines pull out, turning the city over to the “Fallujah Brigades,” a new force made up largely of former Iraqi soldiers. The brigades fail to maintain control; the city falls into the hands of militants and radicals blamed for car bombings and beheadings of foreign hostages.
    June 19: U.S. warplanes repeatedly target safehouses in Fallujah used by followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi , in first significant attack since the end of the siege.
    July 5: American forces drop bombs on a purported militant safehouse in Fallujah, killing at least 10 people. Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi says his government provided intelligence for the strike.
    July 29-30: Fighting between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah kills 20 people.
    Oct. 13: Allawi threatens military action against Fallujah if residents don’t hand over al-Zarqawi.
    Nov. 8: U.S. forces fight their way into the western outskirts of Fallujah, and American and Iraqi troops move into the city’s main hospital. Late in the day, thousands of U.S. ground troops move toward the toughest insurgent strongholds in the city.

    Dec. 1: Ten Marines on foot patrol are killed and 11 are wounded by a roadside bomb near Fallujah.
    May: Sixteen American security guards employed by North Carolina-based Zapata Engineering are jailed by Marines in Fallujah after they allegedly fired on U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians. The guards are released after three days and sent back to the U.S. None are charged.

    September: A prominent tribal leader from Ramadi, Sheik Fassal al-Guood, says tribal leaders and clerics in his home city set up a 43-member Anbar Salvation Council with a force of about 20,000 men to fight the virulent insurgency.
    Oct. 7: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, joined by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, meets with with the tribal sheiks, clerics and government officials from Anbar who united to fight insurgents. Al-Maliki assures the group of the full “support and backing of the government.”
    Oct. 11: President Bush praises Maliki for meeting with the tribal leaders.

    Jan. 10: Bush announces that more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops will be sent to Baghdad and Anbar province in a mission dubbed “the surge.”
    Jan. 28: A suicide bomber driving a dump truck filled with explosives and a chlorine tank strikes a quick reaction force and Iraqi police in Ramadi, killing 16 people.
    Feb. 7: A Marine CH-46 Sea Knight was shot down by insurgents in a Sunni-dominated area in Anbar province, killing all seven people on board.
    Feb. 22: U.S. forces discover car bomb factory with propane and chlorine in Anbar. Troops discover vehicles being prepared as car bombs, as well as detonation material in five buildings.
    March 16: Three suicide bombers driving chlorine-laden trucks strike in Anbar province, killing two policemen and forcing about 350 Iraqi civilians and six U.S. troops to seek treatment for exposure to the gas.
    April 6: A suicide bomber driving a truck loaded with TNT and toxic chlorine gas crashes into a police checkpoint in western Ramadi, killing at least 27 people and wounding dozens.
    Sept 3: Bush pays a surprise visit to an air base in Anbar. He praises the province’s security improvements.
    Sept. 13: Abu Risha, head of the Awakening Council in Anbar province, dies when a roadside bomb explodes near his home just west of Ramadi. His group started the Sunni Arab revolt against al-Qaida. He had met with Bush just days earlier.

    June 27: The handover ceremony for Anbar province is delayed after weather forecasts called for high winds and sandstorms. It later became clear that the postponement was also due to worries that the shift could set off unrest because of competing Sunni camps in Anbar.
    Aug. 27: Commandant Gen. James Conway says the military will hand over control of the Anbar region to the Iraqis within the next few days and that forces in the once-deadly province can be reduced.

    ...And shephards we shall be. For thee my lord, for thee. Power hath descended forth from thy hand. That our feet may swiftly carry out thy command. So we shall flow a river forth to thee. And teeming with souls shall it ever be. E Nomini Patri, E Fili, E Spiritu Sancti.

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