Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Toughest Fight in Anbar Province | By Christian Lowe | January 11, 2008

KARMAH, Iraq - It's a new kind of fight these Marines weren't exactly counting on. And it might be the toughest one they've had to endure in this war-ravaged country.
After preparing to confront one of the most deadly insurgencies America has ever faced, and steeped in the legend of Marine aggressiveness in the counterterrorist fight, the leathernecks of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines are fighting a pitched battle against boredom.

With violence across the province dropping precipitously over most of the past year, Marines who were girding for a brawl on this latest rotation have had to dial back their warrior ways for a softer approach.

Though their thoughts are tinged with disappointment, many are nevertheless practical about the new reality.

"There's not much going on this time around," said Cpl. Ken Dickerson, 1st squad leader with Lima Company, 3/3's 3rd Platoon. "But at least we're not losing anybody."

The two years preceding this Hawaii-based battalion's August deployment were some of the most violent for U.S. forces in its nearly five year occupation of Iraq. But since the surge of 30,000 troops launched in early 2007, violent incidents in Anbar have dropped to levels unthinkable just a year ago.

According to officials with II Marine Expeditionary Force, there were about 170 "significant events" in Fallujah, about five miles from here, during the first week of January 2007. That includes firefights, IED attacks, mine explosions and roadside bombs that were discovered, but that did not detonate.

By the last week of December, the number of "sigevents," as they're called here, in Fallujah dropped to less than 20.

In Ramadi, the capitol of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province and a troubled hot spot for years, incidents dropped from 198 in one week of February 2007, to three by the last week of the year.

II MEF officials attribute this massive shift to a population fed up with al Qaeda in Iraq's terrorist tactics and rejuvenated tribal governance that cast its lot with American efforts to bolster the national government.

Whatever the reason for the reduction in violence, Marines in the field have switched from rifles to paint brushes and from bullets to handshakes.

For some of leathernecks here on their first deployment, it's a bit of a let-down. One Marine in 3rd platoon who's a veteran of the fierce Fallujah fight in November of 2004 said it's been tough to keep his Marines motivated after regaling them with stories of that epic battle. They came here to fight, he said, and instead they're patrolling streets teeming with people, devoid of enemy activity.

In fact, Lima Company hasn't fired a single shot in anger since early October, its commander, Capt. Quintin Jones, said.

And that's just fine with him. As local police take greater control of their towns and local citizens help keep al Qaeda malcontents from detonating bombs in their markets, the Marines here are left with little to do but reconstruction and institution building - an overall mission that has one every Marine can appreciate.

"It might be a little boring here now," said Lance Cpl. Parker Winnett, a radio operator with 3rd Platoon's 1st squad. "But at least I'll come home alive."

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