December 31st, 2006 08:08 EST
Marines look back at a year of progress with Iraqi Army
CAMP FALLUJAH — Marines with Regimental Combat Team 5 spent 2006 making significant progress, with the help of the Iraqi Army, in eastern Al Anbar Province.
Fallujah, once the site of a pitched battle between Marines and al Qaida insurgents, is now considered a Sunni safe haven. It’s a marked progression that’s led to Marines turning over increasing responsibility to the Iraqi Security Force, a functioning city government and Iraqis seeking safety within the city’s limits.
It’s been a year of tough days, spectacular battlefield performances, hope, faith and steadfast discipline.
“We have aggressively worked to make Fallujah a model of progress, cooperation, and see it as an emerging, advanced and forward-looking city, perhaps one of the most in all of Iraq, certainly the most in all of Al Anbar Province,” said Col. Larry D. Nicholson, RCT-5’s commanding officer, in a recent press briefing. “The key to our success in Fallujah has been a thematic approach. We focus on ‘Team Fallujah,’ meaning that as the Marines, the Iraqi Army, the Fallujah police and the local citizens working together, nothing can stop us, no one can beat us.”
Marines now stand at the entry control points to the city alongside Iraqi Soldiers and Police.
Combined operations are standard in the area. Recruiting drives brought hundreds of Sunni Soldiers into the Iraqi Army, where none had volunteered before.
And Fallujah, along with the outlying cities that had never seen a Police Force, are now protected by their own. Fallujans continue to join the police, despite terrorists’ attacks.
“In many locations, Marines, Iraqi Soldiers and Police, along with Iraqi civilians and military advisers, live and work together in the same facility, sharing the same hardships, dangers and goals for the future,” Nicholson said. “Despite a campaign of murder and intimidation of local civic leaders and police by insurgents and criminals, city government and police stations across our area continue to develop and grow.”
Security in Fallujah improved so dramatically that the city, once the flashpoint for violence in Iraq, is now considered a safe haven for Sunnis fleeing sectarian violence in Baghdad and other regions in Iraq.
“In the two years since the conclusion of the battle, the population has rebounded to pre-Al Fajr levels,” Nicholson explained. “Today anywhere between 300,000 and 400,000 is our estimate. But not only have most of the original citizens returned, but many Iraqi citizens who were fleeing sectarian violence in Baghdad have found refuge in Fallujah.”
Security operations dominated much of what Marines in the regiment were seen accomplishing in 2006. They were marked by events such as a battle fought by 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment in Gharmah and the capture of Jill Carroll’s kidnappers, the Christian Science Monitor journalist who was held captive for nearly three months. The capture was the result of the efforts of “Darkhorse” battalion of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
They also were credited with the recovery of a sniper rifle stolen from the “Magnificent Bastards” of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in June 2004. Darkhorse snipers recovered the rifle after killing insurgents near Habbaniyah, almost two years to the day it was stolen.
The road between Habbaniyah was opened for the first time by Darkhorse when the regiment expanded its area of operations and expanded further by the “Betio Bastards” of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment who relieved Darkhorse.
Outlying camps were closed, handing off responsibility to Iraqis and at the same time, the regiment preceded the call for more Military Transition Team trainers and increased the size of teams of Marines training Iraqi Soldiers and Police.
“We’ve probably doubled the size of the teams right now,” Nicholson said. “We are, as Marines, a better unit when we go out that we have Iraqis with us. You know, nothing against our great force, and again, we’re exceptionally capable, but the Iraqis see things we'll never see. They understand intuitively things that we just won’t understand.”
Still, Nicholson said more Iraqi Soldiers and Police are needed.
“Probably the most pressing need we have right now in our area of operations is a lack of Iraqi Soldiers and Police,” he said. “The ones we have are doing great, but we just don’t have enough.”
All the effort put in by the regiment wasn’t just on security, though. Behind the scenes, Marines worked to help Iraqi business leaders prepare and carry out reconstruction projects throughout the area. Clean water, medical care, improved electricity, cell phone services and even a street clean-up project in Fallujah were shepherded along by RCT-5 Marines.
“Fallujah is today a boomtown for construction and is again reasserting its financial muscle in the province," Nicholson said. “We continue to work feverishly on items like electrical distribution, but what we are finding out is that there has now recently developed a First World appetite for consumer goods like air conditioners, satellite TVs, freezers and fridges, while there still remains a Third World infrastructure that struggles to keep up.”
Through it all, the enduring factor has been the Marines, Sailors and Soldiers of RCT-5, along with the Iraq Security Force, gear up every day and patrol in the sweltering summer heat and stand post in the freezing winter nights.
“Each day these young Americans are risking their lives for the basic security of the Iraqis, supporting local governance and improving the economic opportunities and conditions, and, in short, making life better for the Iraqis,” Nicholson said. “There’s no aspect of the Iraqi challenge that Marines are not involved in and working hard to improve. I just want to say that I am honored and humbled each and every day to lead this magnificent regiment here in Iraq.”
(By Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva, Regimental Combat Team 5.)