While President Bush and congressional leaders debate how to change U.S. strategy in Iraq, commanders of the more than 20,000 Marines patrolling the country's western desert remain publicly optimistic. But they warn that progress against the 3-year-old insurgency will remain incremental unless the Iraqi government changes its ways.
"The solution to Anbar is much larger than Anbar," Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, the top Marine in Iraq, said in an interview, referring to Al Anbar province. "There has to be Baghdad participation."
The sprawling province, which stretches from the Euphrates River west to Iraq's borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, has been the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency since its outbreak in 2003 and the scene of many of the toughest battles for U.S. forces.
Marines said they had made headway in some parts of the province.
In Barwanah, along the Euphrates, they report getting tips from residents on where to hunt for insurgent weapon caches. In Rawah, also along the river, "people in the city are now willing to sell food to the Iraqi army. In the past they wouldn't do that," said Maj. Joe Atherall of the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance.
Mentoring of Iraqi soldiers and police by Marines has also increased in parts of the region.
But in Ramadi, the provincial capital, Marines are hunkered down in a bullet-riddled government center, and many local officials have fled. The provincial council, elected to govern the region, dares not meet in the city of 400,000. It has set up a government in a hotel in Baghdad.
"Al Qaeda wants Ramadi for its symbolic importance," Zilmer said.
Here, along a long-established smuggling route from Syria to Baghdad, forces from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit have taken up residence in this oddly named community outside the town of Rutbah. (Korean Village is said to have been named for Korean laborers who lived here while working on Iraqi construction projects.)
The goal is to block the smuggling routes used by insurgents, who have tried to create a way station in Rutbah on the road to the capital. Marine officials must soon decide whether to extend the expeditionary unit's tour past March, when it is due to return to Camp Pendleton.
Col. Brian Beaudreault, commander of the unit, hopes to persuade the Iraqi army to assign troops to Rutbah. So far, though, the Rutbah effort is solo -- to Beaudreault's disappointment.
Getting Iraqis to take responsibility for security in Al Anbar province remains the elusive key to U.S. hopes in the region. Even as Marines engage in firefights with insurgents and make nighttime raids on their strongholds, Marine officials said their goal was not a knockout but to "neutralize" the insurgency sufficiently so that Iraqi forces, once trained, could take over.
"It's their country; it's their fight," Atherall said.
Achieving that goal will require Iraq's central government, which is dominated by Shiite Muslims, to become more responsive to this Sunni Muslim area, Marine leaders said.
"The progress out here is slow but steady; it's kind of like chopping a tree down," Zilmer said. "You take a whack at it each day."
He suggested that it might take at least 18 months to "bring security under control" and allow Marines to withdraw.
And even that timetable will work only if Iraq's central government finds a way to speed up reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites and allocate more money to the struggling provincial government, particularly for healthcare, Zilmer said. To further that goal, the Marines have assigned an officer to lobby Baghdad on behalf of Al Anbar.
There's been some progress in getting the central government to make an effort to win over the population, Marine officials said. The number of police in the province has more than doubled in six months, to 7,900 on the streets and 1,200 in training. Tribal leaders favor police officers over Iraqi soldiers because they are recruited from among local Sunnis. Police officers and soldiers are finally being paid by the central government, Marine officials said.
But the tension with Baghdad remains strong. Some residents contend the capital is being run by the Iranian government, Marine officials said, a reference to the ties between some Iraqi Shiite leaders and Shiites in Tehran.
In Fallouja, the home of Zilmer's headquarters, the distrust between the province's Sunnis and the central government influences Marine tactics. Attacks against U.S. and Iraqi targets have decreased, but the relative peace, which followed ferocious combat in late 2004, has come only after extensive U.S. efforts, including the construction of large berms topped with razor wire around some neighborhoods to restrict access.
"We're building large gated communities," said Col. William Crowe, commander of the 7th Marine Regiment.
Marines hope the tight controls will ease Sunni fears that they will be slaughtered in their homes by Shiite death squads from Baghdad.
"There is a hysteria about Shia death squads, that people dressed as police will arrive in the middle of the night," said Col. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, which is responsible for much of the region, including Fallouja. "We made a deal with the people of Fallouja: We're not going to let people in. We're the night watchmen."
Marines hope to turn over responsibility for one of the six checkpoints to Iraqi forces next month. Iraqis already have taken over some security duties, with Marines providing backup.
Zilmer said he was encouraged by some Al Anbar tribal leaders calling themselves protectors of the desert. They have agreed to aid Marines in finding and destroying Al Qaeda strongholds, as well as in encouraging Iraqis to volunteer for the army or police force.
A U.S. State Department operative based in Al Anbar said that insurgent tactics against tribal sheiks and their families had created a backlash that could help U.S. forces. Some clerics have been targeted by insurgents, and the top imam in Fallouja was killed in February.
"We have leverage with the Sunni Arabs finally," he said.
But whatever progress Marines can make here would be for naught if the central government failed, Marine commanders said.
"We all realize that regardless of how well we do in Fallouja -- Fallouja could be a utopian place -- ... if Baghdad fails, we're all in trouble," Nicholson said.