August 1, 2003
Marine leader tells of working with Iraqis
He says efforts keep the casualties down
By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
QUANTICO, Va. – The Marines have suffered almost no casualties during the stability phase in Iraq because they put more troops on the street than the Army and balance an aggressive response to any violence with a vigorous effort to help the Iraqi people, the top Marine field commander said.
"We manage the level of violence. If we take fire, we immediately achieve fire superiority and we govern the de-escalation. We don't let the bad guys do that," said Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
Because their units are primarily infantry, the Marines "can put about as many boots on the ground with a single Marine regiment" as an Army division, Conway explained.
"That presence out there is very stabilizing, very comforting to the Iraqis when they're looking for that safe and stable environment," he noted.
The Marines also have tried to gain local support by helping the Iraqis rebuild their country, focusing particularly on the children.
"It's hard to throw rocks at someone when they're doing good things for your kids," said Conway, whose headquarters is at Camp Pendleton.
Only one Marine has been killed by hostile action in Iraq, compared with 50 Army soldiers, since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1.
In a detailed briefing for a large audience of Marines here earlier this week, Conway and his senior commanders said the successful conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom validated the Corps' basic organization and war-fighting doctrine. They heaped particular praise on the Marines' unique integration of air and ground combat units in what they call the MAGTF – Marine Air Ground Task Force.
"The concept of the MAGTF absolutely was validated," Conway said. "Every Army commander out there was envious of the MAGTF."
The air component of that force was the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing led by Maj. Gen. James Amos, who is based at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Dieo.
Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division, related that the commander of the British division that fought under Conway's command told him "the one big lesson he learned coming out of this fight is that he wanted the 3rd Marine Air Wing.
Amos said he did most of the critical close air support of ground forces with his helicopters, while the fighters conducted interdiction strikes farther from the front.
"Some of the most courageous fighting I saw" by air units was by the AH-1W Cobra and UH-1 Huey pilots who "went out there and slugged it out in the worst weather I've ever seen," he said.
But, he added, sending the low-flying helicopters out in front of the ground forces had a negative side. "I had 58 Cobras. I had 49 of them shot up," and had to take six of them out of the field on trucks, he said.
Amos suggested the Marines would have to revise their tactics for attack helicopters.
Conway said the Marines' mission in the war was to conduct "a supporting attack" to protect the Army's right flank as it raced toward Baghdad.
That meant "we could pick a fight with everybody who would pay attention to us, to try to look like the main attack," he said.
The role and the route assigned to the Marines forced them to fight their way through a number of cities that the Army avoided, resulting in 58 combat deaths and 280 wounded.
One of the worst fights was when Task Force Tarawa, a mixed force of West and East coast Marine units led by Brig. Gen. Richard Natonski, had to fight for two bridges at Nasiriyah.
"Those two bridges are probably the most expensive bridges in Iraq, paid for with the lives of 18 Marines," Natonski said.
Natonski's task force, which included the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, came to the aid of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company, which blundered into a deadly ambush in Nasiriyah. The Marines provided the main support for special operations troops who rescued Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch.
"Any reports that they could have just walked in and rescued Jessica Lynch, that is not the case. There was fighting," including a diversionary mission staged by the 15th MEU, he said.