Marines continue to play key role in Iraq

By: MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

Thirty-six months after the invasion of Iraq, Marines from Camp Pendleton, Miramar and Twentynine Palms continue to play a major role in a conflict that has no end in sight.

As the U.S. enters its fourth year of occupation, the 25,000-member Pendleton-based I Marine Expeditionary Force is now on its third deployment to Iraq.

It's a massive Marine ground and air force that constitutes about 20 percent of the 132,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq.

Facing daily battles with an unconventional enemy in what is essentially urban warfare, a Marine spokesman in Iraq said last week that the mission now is twofold: training and operating.

While the first deployment was for the invasion and the second involved mostly combat operations in and around cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi, the Marines have a different goal this time.

"The situation requires that we train and operate at the same time," Marine Maj. R.T. Player wrote in an e-mail to the North County Times from Camp Fallujah. "So we have to do both counterinsurgency operations and train, coach and mentor the Iraqi forces."

On Friday, a top US. general in Iraq said the goal now is to have Iraqis in control of 75 percent of the country within a few months.

"By this summer, about 75 percent of Iraq will be ... owned by Iraqi units," Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commander of Multinational Corps Iraq said.

As the Marines work to raise the effectiveness of Iraqi forces, national polls show a decline in support for the war. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released Thursday indicated seven of 10 people think the human and financial tolls have been too great. Sixty-one percent of the 1,005 adults polled nationwide said it was time to reduce troop levels, and only 21 percent said they supported an increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Where they are

After steamrolling over the Iraqi army following the invasion of March 20, 2003, U.S. forces encountered an insurgency that has grown increasingly lethal and increasingly reliant on fighters with ties to the al-Qaida terrorist group.

Commanders say it is al-Qaida fighters who are mostly responsible for the daily roadside bombings, suicide bombings and small-arms attacks.

Last week, Iraqi officials announced they had foiled a plot that would have put more than 400 al-Qaida men at guard posts in Baghdad's Green Zone, home of the U.S. and other embassies as well as the Iraqi government.

Far from Baghdad, the I Marine Expeditionary Force led by Maj. Gen. Rick Zilmer assumed control of western Iraq and the Anbar province from the North Carolina-based II Marine Expeditionary Force on Feb. 28.

Augmented by U.S. Army units, the troops are responsible for security throughout the province, which borders on Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

"Our mission here first and foremost is to develop the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces to allow them to win this counterinsurgency in Iraq," Zilmer said when the transfer of power took place.

The region includes the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah as well as the provincial capital city of Ramada and the cities of Hit, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and Al-Qaim.

In early February, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing based at Miramar took over control of the skies of western Iraq from its Camp Lejeune counterpart.

Wing commander Col. Jonathon G. Miclot said he will determine the success of this deployment on "how well we assist the Iraqis ... so they can control their own destiny."

On the seas, the San Diego-based aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan left California on Jan. 4 and is on patrol in the Persian Gulf.

As of Friday, 276 Marines from Pendleton or Miramar have lost their lives in combat or accidents since the ground invasion dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom began. That's about 12 percent of the 2,312 U.S. service members who have died in Iraq.

The most recent I Marine Expeditionary Force death occurred one week ago when Lance Cpl. Kristen Figueroa of Honolulu died in combat operations in Anbar. Figueroa was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment from Twentynine Palms.

Despite the losses, congressional representatives, defense policy analysts and at least one Marine with three Iraqi postings under his belt say Americans should expect to have a troop presence in Iraq for years to come.

Message from Fallujah

In his e-mail to the newspaper, Maj. Player said the third anniversary of the invasion is a time for North County residents to consider what Iraq was like and what the goals seek to achieve.

"In 2003 there was tyranny, oppression and a collapsing economy," Player wrote. "Now, as Iraq moves to self-governance and providing its own security, know that there are Iraqi soldiers and battalions out there working in partnership with your Marines.

"Some Iraqis are out patrolling on their own, and this is the first step in transitioning the entire security piece to the Iraqis."

As Player was sending his e-mail message, U.S. and Iraqi troops were launching the largest air assault since the invasion, targeting insurgents north of Baghdad.

One experienced Marine's view

Staff Sgt. Christopher Glocke has been to Iraq three times, returning most recently in January.

The San Marcos resident said last week that he believes the U.S. has to stay until the Iraqi army and security forces can maintain order.

"If we pulled out right now it would cause more harm than good ---- they would go straight into civil war," said Glocke, who in April will become a drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. "The area commanders we have set up so far would become warlords and whoever has the biggest guns would win and things would degenerate into tribal genocide."

Glocke said he does not believe Americans hear enough about the rebuilding efforts taking place throughout Iraq.

"All the negativity comes from stories of IEDs (roadside bombs) in the Anbar province when in fact almost everything else is working well."

The Iraqi army and security forces are being trained as rapidly as possible, and Glocke said he believes they are eager for the U.S. to leave so they can assume control.

Despite the emphasis on training the Iraqis this year, Glocke said he believes U.S. troops will remain in Iraq for several more years.

"The general public has the wrong idea about pulling out," he said. "It's going to take five more years at least."

A similar view is held in the offices of North County lawmakers in Washington.

The polls

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, the influential chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has made numerous trips to Iraq, the most recent in February when he visited Fallujah and Baghdad.

Hunter said in a telephone interview from his Washington office last week that after his most recent trip he now believes there is a strong chance that large numbers of U.S. forces will be able to come home late this year.

"I think we will be able to pull down the level of our forces faster than people expect," he said. "It will depend on the training up of the Iraqi forces, but I think we will see large areas of Iraq being taken over by the Iraqis this year, freeing up U.S. forces so they can start to return."

Hunter said declining support for the war in opinion polls reflects three years of nightly television images of bombings and daily casualty reports, images and numbers that have tested Americans' resolve.

"But there is no shortcut to doing this," Hunter said. "The American people need to have patience and endurance. In this society we have learned to expect rapid results and anything that goes on longer than three months can test that patience.

"There has to be a realization that this is a long and difficult war against terrorism and that Iraq is the centerpiece for that war. We have a lot at stake here and I am willing to stand up before my electorate and defend why this is important."

U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, remains an opponent of the war, calling for an international force to step in.

Filner has said the U.S. has spawned terrorists where few previously existed and that war was started in what he termed an "immoral and corrupt way" through reliance on what turned out to be false information about weapons of mass destruction.

But U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, whose 49th Congressional District includes Camp Pendleton and much of North County and Southwestern Riverside County, said pulling out before Iraq can provide security for its citizens would be a mistake.

Issa concurred with Maj. Player about the role of the Marines in Iraq today.

The first year following the invasion was about ridding the country of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's influence, he said. The second year was about coming to grips with the insurgency and the fact the Iraqis could not provide their own security. The last 12 months have been about getting the Iraqis to the point where they can take combat and security responsibility, Issa said.

"It wasn't until this last full year that real Iraqi units were standing up and being called into battle and forced to shed their own blood," the Republican lawmaker said in a telephone interview from Washington. "We are essentially playing catch-up for a plan we should have had in place within 90 days of the invasion."

Issa said he concurred with Hunter that substantial U.S. troop reductions are possible this year. And while the national polls are not as supportive of the war as they were in its first two years, Issa said voters in his district remain resolute.

"The electorate of the 49th District is more conservative than the rest of the nation," he said. "But there are also three truisms: We hate to have our people in war and don't want to see our Marines dying. But we hate to lose, and the whole idea that we would pull out early is simply not an option. And lastly, we will spend any amount of money to help people fight for freedom, but we won't fight their fight for them forever."

Maybe not forever, but like Staff Sgt. Glocke, Issa cautioned it could still be a long time before all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq.

"It might take five years or more," he said.

Through last week, the Iraqis had created 49 battalions, 13 brigade headquarters and two division headquarters.

Policy examiners

At the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, a nonpartisan think tank that studies and makes recommendations on U.S. defense policy, the director of its Middle East program said Iraq is at a dangerous crossroad.

Sunnis and Shiites are now engaged in sectarian warfare, a conflict seen by some as a precursor to a civil war and by others as an unconventional civil war that is under way.

"No one really knows what the endgame will be," Jon Alterman, a former U.S. Senate staffer, State Department official and Harvard professor said in a telephone interview. "Our difficulties are creating strong national institutions, and it's a growing problem."

The central challenge is changing the identity of who is in charge in Iraq, he said.

"The key issue is moving Iraq back toward a notion of 'Iraqiness' and there has to be a national sense that its institutions are in control. If Iraq doesn't do that, the future is going to be a very difficult one."

John Pike, director of the military monitoring group Global Security Organization in Washington, said last week that despite all the pronouncements of progress from the Pentagon, the number of U.S. killed and wounded is the true barometer.

"Two years ago, it was running 600 wounded per month and today it's more like 300 per month," he said. "But the number killed has been running about 60 per month, and I would have to say that it doesn't matter what else is happening until those numbers go down and stay down."

The infighting among the Shiites, Sunnis and the virtual autonomy of the Kurds in the north is a decades-old reality, Pike said.

"If we get caught in the middle of a genocidal civil war a lot of members of Congress will say, 'Well, we've done our best but due to the irresponsibility of the Iraqis' own leadership there is no longer any point in having troops in Iraq.' "

Absent such a war, Pike said, he believes U.S. troops will have to remain in Iraq through the end of this decade and well into the next.

"The Iraqis are just not going to be able to operate on their own until then," he said.

The Pentagon position

At the Pentagon on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the sectarian strife places Iraq in a "very difficult situation."

He also repeated the Bush administration's mantra on why U.S. forces invaded Iraq three years ago, and why troops are still there today.

"Our coalition is fighting terrorists in Iraq so we do not have to fight the terrorists here at home," Rumsfeld said in a Pentagon-prepared story reflecting a briefing to reporters from the secretary and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Pace said during the briefing that even if U.S. troops left Iraq tomorrow, America faces a long fight with terrorists around the world.

"We as a nation need to understand that it takes decades for terrorist organizations to either be defeated or to lose their ideology," Pace said.

Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (760) 740-3529 or