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 , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Two marines searched an alley last year in Rutbah, which the US military has called the last stronghold of the insurgency in Anbar Province.
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    Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly traveled in late March to Combat Outpost Norseman, near Rutbah, in Iraq’s Anbar Province, to find out why Sunni insurgent violence continues in the area despite an end to fighting elsewhere in the province.
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    Marine Maj. Gen John Kelly, far left, met with Iraqi leaders on March 21 in Rutbah, a town in Anbar Province, that continues to grapple with violence at the hands of insurgents linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
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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.

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.

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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.

"How are the people doing? Are the schools open for children?" Kelly asks, after removing his helmet and flak jacket. "How's the economy?"

The mayor of this town of 50,000, who goes by the name Qasim, fingered the gold watch hanging from his wrist, offered a pained smile and says, "The economy? We don't have one."

The town is withering from both the Al Qaeda in Iraq-backed insurgency and the Coalition-led traffic checkpoints, Qasim says. The checkpoints aimed at snagging fighters and bomb-building supplies have stifled the town's few-remaining legitimate business.

As the general's aides scribble notes, Qasim tosses his hands in the air and says Rutbah is faced with an impossibly sticky situation. "There could not be an economy if there is no security."

Much of the rest of Anbar has calmed because of last year's surge in US forces, combined with a massive hiring spree of Iraqi police officers, Kelly says. A year ago, about 6,000 Iraqi police patrolled the huge province. Many didn't have weapons and were easy targets for both bribes and bullets, Kelly says.

Today, about four times as many police serve in the cities of Anbar, but the surrounding desert remains largely lawless.

In coming months, about 10 percent of the 25,000 marines serving in Anbar are scheduled to return home, but two Iraqi Army brigades will move in to the region, which should help maintain the tenuous security, Kelly says.

Troop withdrawals will be a major focus of Petraeus's testimony in Washington. The general, the top US military commander in Iraq, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker are expected to advise Congress that the military should halt withdrawals after July to evaluate security issues, Reuters reported on Monday.

Last week's poor performance in Basra of Iraqi forces against the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has cast much doubt on their ability to take over from US forces.

Qasim knows that many Americans want even more troops to leave Iraq. He urged the general to tell his leaders in Washington that the troops should stay.

"Withdrawal right now means handing Iraq to Iran. This will fulfill the dreams of the Iranians for an empire," the mayor says, echoing a common fear in the province. Qasim also spoke out against the idea of partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish regions. "The first ones to lose if Iraq gets divided are the Americans. For generations to come, [the Iraqis] will not say the fault was Iranian. They will say it was the Americans."

Along with this message, Qasim hoped the general could come up with salaries for his police officers. About 50 members of the town's force of 337 officers have not been paid in recent months. And $15,000 is needed for a construction project to speed up one of the checkpoints.

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

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."

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