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Marines face last insurgent stronghold in Iraq's Anbar Province

While the Sunni heartland has largely turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq, insurgents are still doing battle in the 'wild' reaches of the province.

By James HagengruberContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 2008

Two marines searched an alley last year in Rutbah, which the US military has called the last stronghold of the insurgency in Anbar Province.

ZUMA Press/Newscom/File

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COMBAT OUTPOST NORSEMAN, Iraq

The marines of India Battery of the 3rd Battalion, 11th Regiment jokingly referred to the first half of their deployment to Anbar Province as a "desert spa" experience.

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After serving early in the war as the insurgency's engine, the largely Sunni province seemed to have been tamed after the US helped turn tribal leaders against Al Qaeda in Iraq elements there.

It was a success story that Gen. David Petraeus held up as a "model" for the country in congressional hearings last September. And on Tuesday, as General Petraeus returns to Washington, he is likely to be asked about recent turmoil in Iraq's Shiite south – not the relative calm in its western Sunni heartland.

But as the marines of the 3/11 have learned since their deployment shifted to Anbar's desolate western reaches, all is not yet tranquil in the province.

Early last month, the Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based artillery battery moved into an outpost of sandbags and concertina wire where marines are fighting what they call the last insurgent stronghold here.

"We're in the wild Wild West," says Lt. Hamilton Ashworth after his unit arrived at the post near the border trading town of Rutbah, where highways from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria converge before heading to Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.

The local police station here bears fresh scars from rocket attacks, young men still hide grenades in the streets, and civic leaders continue to be targeted by hit squads.

The marines are now in a scramble to oust insurgents tied to Al Qaeda in Iraq. The mission's priority was underscored by a recent visit to the outpost by Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commander of all multinational forces in western Iraq. General Kelly and his staff traveled by heavily armored convoy to Rutbah to meet with city leaders in hopes of understanding why the insurgency hasn't yet fizzled.

Inside a dimly lit, thick-walled building, Kelly sat a table across from the mayor and police chief. Outside, marines and Iraqi police stood guard.

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