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Despite Milestone, Troops Gird for Test of New Order

Times Staff Writer

For the 138,000 Americans in uniform and thousands of civilians under contract here, it was personal.

Troops such as Rick Smith, a Phoenix homicide detective on reserve duty in the Marines, felt their chests tighten Monday as word of the early transfer of authority spread across bases and outposts. They looked across a hazy, sand-swept horizon. Americans shed blood here. And sweat and money.

Now they gazed out ... to behold what?

In Baghdad, the U.S. did as it promised and proclaimed its hand-molded version of Iraq a sovereign member of the community of nations. For men in suits and ties, it was a moment of history, if not high ceremony. For those in dirty combat fatigues, history would still have to prove itself.

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Not since Vietnam had American fighting men and women been asked to shoulder the burden of trying to shape a far-off nation in their own country’s image, by force and persuasion. Monday, these soldiers found themselves still ensnared in the gunfire and passions tearing through this troubled landscape.

“Marines have sacrificed their lives to get where we are now,” Smith said. “Now that we’re here, it’s finally sinking in. After months of small steps, we’ve taken a big one. Probably the biggest of this war.”

Smith described his mood as a mix of “anticipation about the next few months” and “high expectations” about the long run. He was not alone here in expressing such sentiments.

In the post-invasion campaign to create a self-governing Iraq, Smith, a Marine major and former infantry commander, manned the front lines not as a warrior but as an ambassador.

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He was the point man for the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in the fight for Iraqi hearts and minds. With responsibilities encompassing six cities and towns along the Euphrates River west of Baghdad, Smith helped set up councils for municipal and regional self-governance.

He distributed about $3 million to Iraqi contractors for the rebuilding of this region. Schools along the river now have playground equipment built at a factory that Smith helped establish.

“Some of these things are going to endure -- for months and for years,” he said confidently.

Stabilization and progress in Iraq still depend on achieving security in Iraq, and vice versa. In the battle for hearts and minds, many Iraqis aren’t showing theirs for fear it would make them someone’s target.

Thus, Marines in the vast western spread of the nation also intensified their patrols along Euphrates Valley supply routes Monday in response to the hand-over. They hoped to dampen insurgent violence, or at least discourage restless young men who enlist as supporters of militants for a few dollars. But the military’s official policy on Monday followed plan: The first line of defense in Iraq fell to Iraqi police and national guardsmen -- forces trained, paid for and partially equipped by the U.S.

By advancing the turnover by two days, U.S. and Iraqi officials hoped to catch insurgents off guard and spoil any plans for an uprising. But both American and Iraqi commanders said they expected the new government to be tested quickly, with Marines again pledging to back up local authorities.

As a practical consequence for U.S. troops at the platoon and company level, the change in administration had the chief effect of heightening anxieties and pushing them harder still in the scalding summer sun.

“These are Marines. They don’t think a lot about geopolitics when they are out on patrol,” said Gunnery Sgt. Brad Everett, of Toledo, Ohio. “They’re thinking about survival. And when they do have a chance to ponder events, they’re just like people back home. They’re asking themselves, ‘How is this going to hit me?’ If it’s not done properly, they’re wondering if they will still be here in five years. Or will we have to come back in 10 years and do it again?”

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Marines lamented the highly publicized capture of one of their own from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. At the same time, they claimed victories against insurgents with the seizure of a large cache of weapons in the vicinity of Ramadi, including an antiaircraft gun and 50 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, plus a smaller hoard farther west near the city of Hit.

Baghdad’s quiet hand-over was followed by an equally low-key ceremony at the headquarters compound of the 2nd Battalion. Lt. Col. Phil Skuta, of Williamsport, Pa., presented a brief letter and a new Iraqi flag to his counterpart, Lt. Col. Fahad Abdal Aziz, commander of the 503rd Battalion of the new Iraqi National Guard.

“I know this day means a lot to you. It’s the day we’ve all waited for,” Skuta said.

Abdal Aziz stood at attention, kissed the flag and fought back tears. “Please send greetings to all the Americans, especially the families of the Marines,” he said. “Marines sacrificed their lives here for the sake of freedom. We respect them very much. Their work here was very tough.”

Over tea and tobacco, the Iraqi commander described the mood of his own troops as they face Iraqi insurgents head-on. “Some of them still need the Marines to support them. But I told them, ‘The Marines are not forever.’ Now the National Guard has to do the best it can do.”

For his part, Skuta professed confidence in the Iraqi troops, many of them former soldiers in the Iraqi army. But he added, “We’re not going anywhere.”

Balzar is traveling with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in Iraq.


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