San Diego Union Tribune

April 15, 2006

Some progress seen in still deadly Anbar province
Iraqis are learning to deal with violence on their own

By Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – Anbar province in Iraq remains a very violent place, but the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force now has thousands of Iraqi soldiers and policemen helping them deal with the violence, a senior Marine said yesterday.

When the Camp Pendleton-based unit, called the 1st MEF, left Anbar early in 2005, there were 4,000 Marines and no Iraqi police in Fallujah, Col. Fred Milburn said.

Now back in Iraq for the third time since March 2003, Milburn said he attended the opening Thursday of a regional police station in that volatile city, which now is protected by 1,200 Iraqi policemen, an Iraqi army brigade of several thousand soldiers and only 400 Marines.

“That shows you, in a period of about 14 months in Fallujah, some of the progress that has been made here,” Milburn, the 1st MEF's chief of staff, said in a telephone interview from Iraq.

“I'm not saying that there's not violence at times there. But the Iraqis are more and more being able to handle that violence themselves,” Milburn said.

Ramadi, the largest city in Anbar and a chronic hot spot, “offers some unique challenges to us. . . . It is not as permissive, by any means, as Fallujah,” Milburn continued.

But Iraqi police are about to be sent into Ramadi, and Milburn is hopeful that the Marines would be “able to do the same thing we were able to do in Fallujah without, perhaps, the big battle we had to have 15-16 months ago.”

On their third combat tour in Iraq, the 1st MEF staff, under Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, is leading a force of about 25,000 Marines and several thousand U.S. soldiers to secure the large western province.

Most of the soldiers are from the 28th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit from Pennsylvania.

Anbar remains one of the most violent areas of Iraq. A recently released survey of Iraq's 18 provinces had only Anbar as “critical,” the worst rating.

Although U.S. casualties had been dropping earlier this year, while Iraqi security casualties were rising sharply, the U.S. death toll has increased recently.

In March, the first full month after 1st MEF relieved the East Coast-based 2nd MEF, the Marines suffered seven deaths and U.S. Army units in Anbar lost a slightly higher number.

But already this month, at least 19 Marines and sailors have died, more than a third of them in a single truck accident.

Unlike their last tour in Iraq, when they fought fierce battles with Iraqi insurgents, sectarian militias and foreign jihadists, the Marine-led U.S. forces “are spending the majority of our energy” working to get Iraqi security forces ready to take responsibility for their own country, Milburn said.

President Bush has said repeatedly that creating a viable Iraqi security force is the key to reducing the U.S. presence in Iraq.

The Marines and Army troops have paired their battalions with similar Iraqi units and have military transition teams, of 10 or 11 men, embedded inside each Iraqi battalion to train and mentor them. “We're seeing progress,” Milburn said.

In the far western part of Anbar, along the Syrian border, the Marines are moving out of their large fortified camps and dispersing smaller units into the towns, along with Iraqi security forces.

The situation with the Iraqi police is more difficult, Milburn said. While the army units stay together at night and can provide their own security, the police go home to their families, Milburn explained.

That means as new police units are formed, U.S. forces have to ensure that “the security situation allows them to have a certain amount of safety, so they can do their jobs. We are beginning that process now.”

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