Union Tribune

September 10, 2003

Marines to come home soon, but might have to go back
Only Najaf is left under their wing


WASHINGTON The Marines will turn over security for their last region of Iraq in a few days and should have all of their troops out of the country and on their way home to California by the first week in October, the Marine commander in the Persian Gulf said yesterday.

But Lt. Gen. James Conway would not rule out the possibility that a large number of Marines might have to return to Iraq in the future.

Conway, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Pendleton, said his troops formally turned over four of their five Iraqi provinces to the Polish-led international division in a ceremony in the ruins of Babylon on Sept. 3. His Marines will yield their last area, in Najaf, to the international troops in the next few days, he said.

Conway said the decision to remain a little longer in Najaf, which is a sacred city for Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, was not due to any concern about the capabilities of the multinational division.

But after two terrorist bombings, including one at a mosque that killed a prominent Shiite cleric, "there was a feeling that the Marine presence would lend a greater degree of security and stability to the people," he said.

The Marines will move from Iraq to their former base camps in Kuwait. Then it could take a week or two to arrange air transportation to their home bases, Conway said at a Pentagon briefing.

The Marines in Najaf are from the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, which is based at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms; and elements from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and the 1st Force Service Support Group, both of which are based at Camp Pendleton.

Conway said about 8,000 Marines were still in Iraq, down from nearly 90,000 at the peak.

The general said it was "probably too early to say" whether the Marines would have to send troops back to Iraq for the stabilization force.

But having looked at the projected requirements for forces in the future, "We probably shouldn't say it will or will not be Marines," he said.

Although Marines normally do not do extended peacekeeping missions, Conway said, "We all have to recognize that the Army is pretty well stretched" by all its global commitments.

Sending Marines back to Iraq "would not be an inordinate request," he said.

Even if the Marines do not have to return to the nation-building mission in Iraq, Conway said, their recent experience indicates that the Marines need to develop a formal doctrine for such future duties.

He said the Marines in Iraq were guided by the "Small Wars Manual," developed from their experiences in the Caribbean in the 1920s and '30s, and the "three-block war" concept conceived by Gen. Charles Krulak, a former commandant.

In addition to better guidance, Conway said, "We need to make sure we send in the right kinds of troops," using more military police, civil affairs, psychological operations and information operations experts instead of "grunts," or ground combat troops.

But even though the Marines have fought two wars in the Persian Gulf in 12 years that involved long-distance, high-speed operations of heavy mechanized forces, Conway said his recommendation is that the Corps not change its traditional organization of light infantry combined with integral air support.

"We feel we can throw together a force very quickly with those elements of the Marine Air Ground Task Force that are necessary," he said. The existing organization "makes us ready to go anywhere and do what the nation asks us to do."