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thedrifter
04-06-06, 08:25 AM
April 6, 2006
In Bid to Rebuild Razed Bridge, Recovery and War Vie in Iraq
By DAVID S. CLOUD

HUSAYBA, Iraq, April 2 — Last August, under daily attack from car bombs and mortars, the Marines took down the only bridge over the Euphrates River for miles around.

Now they are trying to rebuild it.

With the bridge down, marines say, insurgents and foreign fighters can no longer infiltrate as easily into this town near the Syrian border in western Anbar Province, the heavily Sunni Arab area that has formed the heart of the insurgency. But Iraqis who live on the river's northern bank grumble that they have no easy way to get to town to buy and sell goods or to see the doctor.

"The biggest complaint I hear is that we took down the bridge," said Lt. Col. Nick Marano, commander of the Marine battalion here. "We have to replace it and we will."

The shifting priorities illustrate the trade-off between combat and reconstruction that the American military is still grappling with, but especially in remote regions like this one, where the Iraqi government is still almost nonexistent.

The Marines' effort is also a test of the Bush administration's declaration that it will focus this year on holding and rebuilding Iraqi towns, rather than departing after military operations and allowing insurgents to return.

Though the orders from Washington are to clear, hold and build, accomplishing that on the ground is proving difficult.

The centerpiece of the nationwide effort, announced by the State Department last year, was supposed to be 18 provincial reconstruction teams in cities and towns around the country. But security conditions have limited the number created to only four so far, in Hilla, Mosul, Kirkuk and Baghdad, although two more are scheduled to open in about a month.

[In Washington on Wednesday, a senior United States government official attributed the delay in expanding the program to reluctance by the American military to take on additional duties guarding the provincial reconstruction teams and their headquarters in the field. "One can understand that, that they want to focus on their own principal duties, which are in war fighting," the official said. "So the program has had a lot of growing pains."]

In Husayba, the Marines are the only reconstruction team around. They use local labor as much as possible, but Colonel Marano is not sure he will be able to find a company that can handle the work.

In addition, the bridge project has not been budgeted by the provincial government, several marines said.

Hoping for an interim fix, Colonel Marano inquired recently about moving a little-used pontoon bridge installed by Army engineers miles down river. He was told that the unit was to rotate back to the United States soon, and would be taking its bridge back.

For now, small boats ferry residents across the river.

Another major project — to rebuild the Iraqi customs building at the border crossing with Syria, which was destroyed by three car bombs in a huge explosion last year — won't begin until June or July. Trade with Syria, both legal and illegal, has long been the mainstay of the economy here, and Colonel Marano said the 17 Sunni sheiks in the area lobby him constantly to reopen the crossing.

Colonel Marano said he was spending $14 million on smaller projects around the region, fixing roads and schools, removing rubble and installing water treatment facilities. He said he told the sheiks, some of whom aided the insurgents last year, that they would see an economic payoff if they demonstrated their loyalty.

"I have told them it's a performance-based relationship," he said. "As long as the security situation remains good we will work the infrastructure improvements and provide jobs for their tribes."

He added, "The moment there's an attack against marines or Iraqi soldiers, I expect them to provide intelligence about who did it."

Last year, American commanders were describing Husayba and several neighboring towns, known as the Qaim region, as a major insurgent haven. Some of them were foreign fighters who crossed over the Syrian border, but others were Iraqis who had been forced out of Falluja and other cities closer to Baghdad and taken refuge here, he said.

Husayba then "was like a Wild West border town," recalled Lt. Evan Lopez, who was stationed here on his first Iraq tour in 2004 and 2005 and is now back. Insurgents lobbed mortar shells and rockets every night at the small Marine outpost. Patrols were attacked so regularly by roadside bombs and sniper fire that they were eventually abandoned, he said.

With the American forces stretched thin throughout western Iraq, it was not until last November that 2,500 marines, along with Army units, mounted an operation to clear the city.

Most of the town's residents had fled, their houses taken over by insurgents, some of whom fought back fiercely, marines say. The Marines estimated that they killed 250 fighters in the 18-day operation.

Col. W. Blake Crowe, the senior Marine commander for the region, said the operations had reduced the flow of foreign fighters crossing from Syria to a "trickle." But he said insurgents had shifted their operations to towns along the Euphrates River closer to Baghdad, including Haditha.

With Husayba largely cleared of insurgents, "Haditha's really the hub" of insurgent activity in western al Anbar now, he said.

But keeping a large presence along the border here has that meant Colonel Crowe's other forces — two Marine battalions and a portion of an Army Stryker brigade — are stretched thin trying to cover Haditha and other areas in western Anbar province. Even with increasing numbers of Iraqi troops, Colonel Crowe said his regiment lacked the manpower to cover the 40,000 square miles is his area. In January he ordered a 20-foot-high berm built around the desert town of Rutba, to limit access to the remote haven for smugglers and free troops for operations elsewhere.

Rather than clearing Husayba and leaving, the Marines have left an entire battalion in the area, and the Iraqi Army has blanketed the town with troops. Three Iraqi battalions are also stationed in the area, part of a recently formed division that was deployed in Anbar last October.

To soothe local sensibilities, the officers are largely Sunni Arabs from the Qaim area, and the unit's commander says his soldiers are 27 percent Sunni — one of the highest percentages in the largely Shiite Iraqi Army.

"We have the sheiks of the area on our side, and most of the people are tired of the insurgents," said Colonel Ishmael, the Iraqi commander, who declined to give his full name. His Marine adviser says the colonel and his family have been threatened for cooperating with the Americans.

Husayba itself is slowly coming back to life. Tucked between the vegetable stands and metal shops along the town's main street is a freshly painted police station, which has been refurbished with American funds after it was attacked by insurgents.

Many stores remain closed, though. Rebuilding the bridge and opening the border, if those projects can be completed before the battalion rotates home in September, "will be two of the most important things we do here," says Colonel Marano.

Ellie