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Trash is Marines’ new enemy

Times Staff Writer

Lt. Sayce W. Falk stopped mid-stride and stood in the dust-fine, silvery sand. He smiled serenely at the scene ahead.

“Good. That is good,” the lanky Marine said in a quiet, almost reverential tone as he watched workers load filth into the back of an orange dump truck. “It makes me happy, just to see them working.”

It would be an understatement to say that Falk has a passion for picking up trash. Like the other Marines in his infantry unit, the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Falk sees trash pickup as the key to maintaining security in Ramadi, where a decision last year by Sunni Arab tribal leaders to turn against insurgents has brought calm to the once-violent capital of Anbar province.

Falk is one of several members of the unit who were in Ramadi in early 2006, when U.S. convoys raced down the main drag at 65 mph to dodge insurgent gunfire. Every patrol risked hitting buried bombs or being caught in a gun battle.

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The situation had changed by the time the unit returned in April. Marines trained as snipers, tank experts and riflemen found those skills unnecessary here. Instead, they became masters of municipal mess, working under the theory that the way to keep the Iraqi city from going back to the insurgency was by improving the quality of life, from the fetid ground up.

Now, instead of worrying about roadside bombs, they worry about puddles.

“That’s a new one!” Falk said as he walked down Ramadi’s main drag. Water gurgled from beneath the sand. The tiny ripples were a sign of a leaking underground pipe, and Falk made a note to alert the city’s sewage manager about it.

Maj. Rory Quinn, the unit’s executive officer, said that every little improvement helped keep Ramadi free of bombings.

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“I’ve got to fix sewers today to buy three more days without one. You’re constantly buying yourself three or four days to prevent another Iraqi from wanting to go out and kill Americans.”

It doesn’t take long to see that the desire for clean streets and pleasant surroundings has overtaken security concerns in Ramadi, where the population has declined by 100,000 residents since the war began four years ago.

Much of the city remains blighted by crumbling buildings and bullet-scarred facades, but there are rebuilt schools, offices, and businesses painted in bright colors, such as raspberry and lime green. A pedestrian walkway erected over the city’s main street is robin’s-egg blue.

Early each morning, young men and boys in the main market are paid to sweep debris out of alleys lined with stalls selling a wide variety of goods.

Cleanup is a topic of conversation between U.S. troops and local leaders as they gather at sheiks’ villas to chat over French cigarettes, Cuban cigars and hot tea. It is the focus of meetings convened at U.S. military posts. It is the first thing shopkeeper Ibrahim Jassim Ahmed mentions when asked whether he has any complaints.

“The biggest problem is that trash right there,” he said, pointing at an empty lot about 25 feet from the door of his tiny food store, where waste was strewn like soiled confetti. “It should be taken away to another area.”

Two large trash containers sat on the edge of the field. Both were empty, pointing up one of the battles facing the U.S. and Iraqi officials trying to beautify Ramadi: getting people to use garbage cans.

The issue was the source of lively debate that evening when some local leaders met with Marines in the Jamaya neighborhood.

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“What can I do for you?” asked Lt. Jordan Reese, the unit’s designated trash guru, as he leaned forward and looked into the creased face of Karim Arak, a Ramadi city councilman.

“I need Dumpsters,” Arak replied.

“We just ordered 400,” Reese said.

“It’s not enough,” Arak replied. He wanted at least 1,500.

Reese counseled patience. “Four hundred is just the first step. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re trying to get as many out there as possible,” he said.

Conversation shifted to the logic of spending money on containers that people might not use.

Someone suggested making posters showing people putting trash into containers. Someone else recommended asking imams to broadcast “no littering” messages. The city’s director general of trash, Akram Mirshed Mahane, joked that an Iraqi police officer should be posted next to each bin to shoot litterbugs.

The issue goes beyond litter, though. This city produces more than the garden variety of city waste. It is a combination of rubble from the war and of garbage that went uncollected for years. Some of it flew away on desert winds, but most of it ended up mixed with the region’s silken sand and in canals.

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The Marines are hoping that a landfill on the city’s southeastern edge becomes an organized city dump. For now, it is a tangle of crushed car parts, plastic bottles, paper and tons of unrecognizable muck heaped in mounds.

“This is the fight -- sewage, water and trash,” Lt. James Colvin said as he showed the landfill to a visitor. “I was a poor math major in college. I come here and they tell me: ‘OK, fix the sewage system!’ ” said Colvin, remembering how shocked he was to return to Ramadi and find that he could walk down streets that he once dreaded crossing in an armored vehicle. “But there’s no enemy to hunt down now, so this is our line of attack.”

Some of Ramadi’s mess has been put to good use. In the center of the city, U.S. forces faced a dilemma over how to demolish a sagging, seven-story building that had been heavily damaged by rockets, its dilapidated remains looming over the refurbished government compound.

A controlled detonation was ruled out as too jarring for shellshocked Ramadi. So troops used debris to build a mountain adjacent to the structure. Now, each morning, Iraqi workers navigate heavy machinery up the side of the trash heap and pound away at the building, which is coming down chunk by chunk.

Even as they oversee such projects, the U.S. troops are trying to wean local officials from depending on them for services that should be funded and provided by the government. They remind them that this unit will leave Iraq in November.

Leaders say they understand, but a trash can overflowing with garbage at the entrance to the freshly painted provincial meeting hall is an indicator of how long it might take for the message to sink in.

Nearly a month ago, a Marine pleaded with city workers to get rid of the eyesore before a high-level meeting of sheiks, U.S. leaders and national government officials. It was still there hours later as the dignitaries arrived. More than three weeks later, it had not moved and had been supplemented by two plastic wastebaskets apparently set down to catch the overflow.

Falk says there is little the Marines can do except keep up the pressure and hope for the best after they leave, ending a deployment that has been free of combat but full of conversations about trash and sewage.

“This is a dull life compared to what they were expecting,” he said of the Marines in the unit who are experiencing Ramadi for the first time. “But the ones who were here before, they are very OK with this life.”

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tina.susman@latimes.com


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