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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.

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"If you bring the salaries back, there will be a statue of you downtown," Qasim promises.

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After the visit, Kelly says leaders across Anbar are beginning to grow nervous about any drawdown of US troops. "We're pretty close, from the point of view of security," says Kelly, now in his third tour in Iraq. "They have their training wheels on. Most kids don't like their training wheels taken off, either," he says, referring to Iraqi soldiers.

Hours after the meeting, the mayor's home was sprayed with bullets. Nobody was hurt, but members of the town's fledgling police force piled into pickup trucks and raced out to find the gunmen.

In recent weeks, a team of US advisers has helped train the Iraqis to respond to violent incidents like this as well as to relatively minor problems, like marketplace thefts or car crashes. The police now arrive at work cleanshaven and in crisp uniforms. They've stopped shrouding their faces in scarves. Warrants are obtained before searches. Evidence is gathered.

Although obtaining enough money from Baghdad to pay their salaries is a huge struggle, Marine Sgt. Roberto Lopez says the biggest challenge is trying to instill in the officers a sense of professionalism and ethics after a generation of brutality and corruption. Sergeant Lopez is part of a team that lives and works with the police at their headquarters in an old stone fort in downtown Rutbah.

"That's the key to making this stick when we leave: pride in themselves and pride in their country," says Lopez, of Nogales, Ariz. "This is the turning point for us getting out of here."

The Iraqis are proud of their US-supplied uniforms, vehicles, weapons, and body armor, but marines grumble about the officers' propensity to shoot before they shout warnings. Several officers even boast about fighting the Americans in the early days of the insurgency. Marines also say the officers' low and inconsistent salaries have done little to stifle corruption.

A young, English-speaking officer who gave his name as Pedro Hussein says, "We're not really ready to take care of things yet."

The mission to bring security to Rutbah has also required the marines of 3/11 to change their tactics, says Capt. Steven Ford, the unit's commanding officer. They were trained to kick down doors and to respond to threats with overwhelming force – a sign on the wall of their plywood command post reminds them to "Be polite, be professional, have a plan to kill everyone you meet."

Winning the trust of locals requires restraint, smiles, and countless cups of tea, Captain Ford says. "When people feel safe and secure, they're going to reject the insurgency." Moments later, a boom echoes over the combat outpost. It came from Rutbah, about a half mile beyond the post's perimeter.

Ford gets up. "Good God, I guess I better go see what that's about."