In farming communities along the Syrian border, U.S. Marines work with Iraqis to open health clinics and a job center and to improve trash collection and water delivery.
In Fallouja, Marines at a center for displaced people greet Sunni Muslims from Baghdad seeking sanctuary from Shiite Muslim death squads.
And along the sniper alley of a freeway that runs between Fallouja and Ramadi, Marines patrol less like warriors than traffic cops.
Rather than charge into battle, most Marines in Iraq’s western desert are engaged in nation building on a piecemeal basis, the kind of venture President Bush once publicly disdained. Trained to win quick, decisive victories with firepower and bravery, Marines in Al Anbar province instead face a daily grind. Most never fire their weapons.
The Marine Corps has even changed the rules for its coveted Combat Action Ribbon, allowing troops to win the award even when no shots are fired.
A sign outside the chow hall at the base in this town near the Syrian border sums up the slow, incremental nature of the campaign: “Rebuilding Iraq one meal at a time.”
Bush said during his State of the Union address that “this is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in.” To the 20,000-plus troops in Al Anbar, soon to be reinforced under the administration’s troop-increase plan, that wasn’t news.
“I wasn’t taught any of these things in infantry school,” said Lt. Col. Scott Shuster, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment, with responsibility for Qaim.
Al Anbar, the vast province that sprawls from the Euphrates River valley west to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, remains deadly. About one-third of U.S. casualties since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 have occurred here, and the danger of roadside bombs in particular is ever present. At nearly every base, a list of Marines killed in action is posted on a wall.
“Inside the wire, [duty in Iraq] is better; outside the wire, it’s not,” said Lance Cpl. Stephen Herring, 20, of Pontiac, Mich., referring to the security of the base.
What has changed is not the violence, but the U.S. expectations. Just over two years ago, after the second battle of Fallouja, Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, then commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, boasted that U.S. forces had “broken the back of the insurgency.” Now the watchword is that all gains are small and that prevailing here could take years.
“I think we’re making progress,” said Capt. Glen Taylor, executive officer of Golf Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, with troops in a run-down hotel in the farm town of Saqlawiya. “I don’t know it will ever be enough, but I think the progress is real.”
Fighting an insurgency is frustrating. “You cut off the head and the body doesn’t necessarily die,” Taylor said.
For one group of Marines, Al Anbar is a target-rich environment: The civil affairs groups, often reservists, describe their mission with the military acronym SWEAT, which refers to rebuilding the sewage, water, electricity, academic and trashremoval infrastructure ravaged by decades of neglect and three years of insurgent attacks.
“The challenges are the same as back home, just 100 times more difficult,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Garcia, a city planner in San Antonio.
Elsewhere in the province, Americans find themselves taking on duties they had not expected. In Ramadi, an Army lieutenant colonel trained as an artillery officer spends his days trying to make sure Iraqi police get paid, lest they desert and join the insurgents. In Haditha, Marines patrol on foot, greeting Iraqis at a market, trying to win hearts and minds one at a time.
In numerous communities, including Saqlawiya, Marines listen to the complaints of Iraqis about war-damaged homes and businesses, making payments in cases where the damage was caused by Marines. Every payment comes with a gentle lecture: It’s time you choose between the insurgents and us.
There is an ad hoc quality to much of the Marines’ strategy. “We’re just trying to explore all avenues,” Lt. Col. Blair Estep said.
There have been setbacks almost everywhere, sometimes caused by trusting the wrong people: Iraqi contractors who turn out to be insurgents; sheiks pretending to have more authority than they do; scam artists trying to get payments, such as a woman in Ramadi who showed the Marines her husband’s death certificate, which was dated the following day.
Marine leaders plead for patience among their troops and the American public. A counterinsurgency operation such as the one in Al Anbar is slow, and gauging its progress is like trying to measure a child’s growth on a daily basis, Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer said.
Even when there are hopeful signs, they are contradicted by disappointing ones.
Lt. Col. James Donnellan, who commands a Marine battalion with responsibility for a triad of towns along the Euphrates, is buoyed by support from the local police chief and a friendly, if tentative, attitude from residents.
Still, the competency of the police is questionable. When a joint Marine-Iraqi convoy was attacked recently, police officers began firing in all directions. Donnellan said it was fortunate no civilians or friendly forces were hurt. “Luckily the police are no better shots than the terrorists,” he said.
For the enlisted ranks, particularly those stationed in more austere settings, away from the comforts of mess halls and movie nights and Internet cafes, the “Groundhog Day” repetition of duty in Al Anbar can be wearing.
“Sometimes you get down, because it seems nothing is going right,” said Lance Cpl. Korby Rhodes, 21, of Park City, Kan., stationed at the spartan Camp Gannon. “You just have to get over it. You can’t linger, you just have to get over it.”
Young men become Marines to fight, not to spend their days protecting convoys from roadside bombs or trying to mentor Iraqis on how to be police officers in their own country.
“I had more of an idea of OIF1 stuck in my head,” said Lance Cpl. Robert Warren, 20, of Palmdale, using the military acronym for the 2003 U.S.-led assault on Baghdad.
Commanders watch for signs that Marines, out of frustration or exhaustion, are too rough with the civilians they encounter at checkpoints or on foot patrols.
“There is a tendency among the young Marines to think it’s as kinetic [combative] as it was once,” said Maj. John Polidoro, whose troops live in tents in the dusty Euphrates valley.
Troops who have seen buddies killed by roadside bombs or snipers have learned to mourn quickly and move on.
“It’s not like it gets easier, it’s like we’re bottling it up, saving our grief,” said Navy corpsman Adam O’Gara, 27, in his second deployment in Iraq.
Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, an Army unit that controls Ramadi and answers to a Marine general, said the Al Anbar strategy could be summarized by a quotation from British philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “Be sociable with them that will be sociable, and be formidable with them that will not.”
Reminded that Hobbes also said that life is “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” MacFarland replied, “Yes, that sounds like Ramadi.”