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San Diego Union-Tribune July 18, 2003

Local Marine units staying busy in Iraq

Troops patrol, raid and rebuild; no return date set

By James W. Crawley

While the news from Baghdad has focused on hit-and-run attacks on Army units and a delayed withdrawal of those troops, thousands of Marines are spread across southern Iraq, looking for Saddam Hussein sympathizers and providing humanitarian and reconstruction aid.

And, like their Army counterparts, the Marines are waiting for a trip home.

Three months after the peak of the fighting, nearly 19,000 Marines - most from Camp Pendleton and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station - remain on duty in Iraq and Kuwait, military spokesmen said.

That's down from about 65,000 Marines who were earlier deployed to the war zone. And although the Marine commandant, Gen. Michael Hagee, said recently that the troops would be home by September, no definite date has been set.

"We won't speculate on a time frame," said Marine Maj. Brad Lowell, a U.S. Central Command spokesman in Tampa, Fla.

The Army and Marine Corps are expected soon to submit plans to rotate troops out of Iraq and back to the States, said Gen. John Abizaid, who commands U.S. troops in Iraq.

"We'll know the specific answers to the questions in about a week," he said Wednesday.

Whether the Marines are home by September will depend largely on the arrival of replacements - the Multinational Division, a polyglot of military units from Poland, Spain, Ukraine and 14 other nations, military officials said.

This division of about 9,000 troops, spearheaded by Polish forces, is expected to take over from the Marines in early September. Military officials said some Marines may remain to assist the foreign units, but no final decision has been made.

The Marine units in Iraq are "a microcosm of the force that was in combat," said Capt. Billy Mitchell, a Camp Pendleton spokesman. But he added that the units are "heavy on combat support," specializing in engineering, transportation, explosives disposal, civil affairs and medical tasks.

From their Camp Babylon headquarters near Hillah, the Marines control 50,000 square miles, or much of southern Iraq, where about 5.7 million people live.

In recent weeks, Marines conducted raids against suspected weapons caches, patrolled oil pipelines, helped reconstruct schools and hospitals, and awarded contracts to Iraqi companies to rebuild police stations and other public buildings damaged in the war.

More than 9,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton's 1st Marine Division, which was the Corps' battering ram during the war, remain in Iraq or Kuwait, spokesmen said this week. At the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the division, part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, had 23,154 Marines and sailors deployed.

An additional 3,000 troops with the Miramar-headquartered 3rd Marine Air Wing continue to serve in the Persian Gulf region, said Col. Jonathan Miclot, a wing assistant chief of staff. During the war, 15,400 Marine aviators and support personnel were in Iraq and Kuwait.

The rest of the Marine forces are from the 1st Force Service Support Group, based at Camp Pendleton, and other combat units attached to the expeditionary force, a Marine Corps spokesman said.

Next week, about 3,000 more Marines and their tanks, personnel carriers, artillery and equipment will return from Operation Iraqi Freedom aboard five amphibious ships that sailed from San Diego on Jan. 17. The ships are in Hawaii for a port visit.

Last weekend, the 2,200-strong 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which helped capture the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, returned to Camp Pendleton.

Besides the Marines, the eight-vessel, San Diego-based Nimitz carrier group, with about 4,000 sailors and airmen, remains in the Persian Gulf, down from about 15,000 local sailors deployed to the region.

The Marines control a wide swath of Iraq stretching from south of Baghdad to the Kuwaiti border and east to the Iranian border. The Army controls Baghdad and most northern provinces, while British forces control two provinces in southeastern Iraq.

The Marines will cede five of seven provinces, known as governorates, to the Polish-led force. The two other provinces would be turned over to another multinational unit under consideration by the British.

But some military analysts believe the transition from U.S. to foreign occupation forces may be problematic.

With 17 nations contributing troops, and some units numbering as few as 100 soldiers, commanding officers probably will have trouble with communications, logistics and coordination among the different nations' forces, analysts said.

"It may not be a problem if there aren't many attacks on (the multinational force), but if there's a lot of shooting going on, I would have my concerns as a commander," said Marcus Corbin, a senior analyst with the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information in Washington.

Another analyst, Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, argued that the Pentagon should rotate more Marine Corps units into Iraq to help the Army.

It would be better to send more Marines to Iraq than to place a further strain on the Army's beleaguered units, O'Hanlon added. He said he would like to see the Marines share some of the burden of garrisoning troops in Iraq in the short term, since the Army already has troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.

While Marine Corps leaders are averse to long-term commitments, O'Hanlon suggested the Marines need to change that posture to meet the Iraq occupation needs.

There are large areas, primarily in largely Sunni-populated Baghdad and north-central provinces, that are not pacified and may require a lengthy occupation and large-scale counterinsurgency operations by the Army.

Much of the Marine Corps-occupied region is Shia, the Islamic sect that suffered under the Baathist rule of Hussein.

GlobalSecurity.org analyst John Pike said the Pentagon misjudged how long combat forces would have to stay in Iraq.

"I think they thought (the troops) would be home in June," Pike said.


Copyright 2003, Union-Tribune Publishing Co.