AN NAJAF, Iraq -- Two days after Iraq’s national elections, and just a few weeks left until they return to the United States, Marines here say they are confident they are leaving the holy city of Najaf in better shape than when they arrived in July.
After weeks of training Iraqi Security Forces, the Marines of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) stood down their patrols for Sunday’s historic elections after the top Marine commander here determined that the city was in good hands with local police and soldiers.
Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer for the 11th MEU (SOC), said he felt confident that local Iraqi law enforcement and military would be able to “take charge of the city” Sunday if violence had struck during elections.
“They are ready to step forward to do what they have to do, whether coalition forces are there or not,” said Haslam, who spent Sunday at the Joint Command Center near the governor’s compound in the city’s center. “The turnout of voters...was a homerun.”
According to various news reports, nearly 85-percent of Najaf's 430,000 eligible voters visited the polls to cast their ballot -- an overwhelming response when compared to the 60-percent of Americans who voted during this year's presidential elections, according to a website for the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
“This (elections) has been one of the biggest steps for us getting home and for the Iraqis to run things on their own, which was the goal in the first place,” said Cpl. Cole R. Young, a 21-year-old infantryman from Steeleville, Ill.
Young is a vehicle commander for one of two anti-armor platoons for 1st Battalion, 4th Marines – the infantry unit of the 11th MEU, which has spearheaded stability and security operations here for the past seven months.
Normally, the Marines patrol the city daily in their armor-clad Humvees, machine guns and missile launchers always at the ready, searching for any lingering signs of the insurgency they fought and defeated here nearly six months ago.
But Sunday - election day - was different.
Rest, then back on the job
Instead of spending hours driving through Najaf’s streets, the Marines of the anti-armor platoon were ordered to survey a water treatment plant on the city’s outskirts: a one-hour job which took about one fourth of the time they spend on regular patrols.
With the rest of the day off, and the city of Najaf in the hands of the Iraqis, the Marines of the anti-armor platoon spent the day playing football, watching movies, relaxing, and sleeping.
“They were knocked out,” said Gunnery Sgt. Jeffery M. Godfredson, platoon sergeant for one of BLT 1/4's anti-armor platoons, who said the majority of his Marines could be found fast asleep in there tents on election day. “It was a much needed break.”
On Monday, the Marines were back to patrolling the streets and standing watch as engineers began tearing down the large, concrete barriers provided by the U.S. military to fortify polling sites.
Mounted in Humvees and armed with machine guns, missiles and rifles, the Marines were greeted by the usual scores waves, whistles, and thumb’s up from their Iraqi neighbors.
A badge of honor
When asked if they had voted or not, some Iraqis displayed their right index fingers, stained with purple ink – as proof that they had indeed cast their ballot. Lasting 72 hours, the purple ink was used by election officials to prevent citizens from voting more than once.
“In the morning... we patrolled between the houses and used a loudspeaker to encourage them (Iraqis) to vote. And they did,” said Mohammed Hameed, 22, an Iraqi police officer who was still manning his check point the day after elections.
Armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and uniformed in black trousers and a blue collared shirt, Hameed was one of thousands of Iraqi security forces who manned check points and provided security at the city’s polling sites.
“It feels very good to secure the people,” said Hameed the day after elections, standing on a median next to wooden barriers at one of Najaf’s roadway checkpoints. “When people get to sleep safe, I have done my job, and it feels good.”
Standing over Hameed’s shoulder was 38-year-old Warrant Officer Jasem Mohammad, another Iraqi police officer, who interrupted Hameed to speak about his experience Sunday.
“People were very excited about voting. I could not sleep the night before. I couldn’t wait to vote,” he said, displaying his purple ink-stained index finger. “It’s the first time we have a democracy – in all of Middle East.”
Marines laud Iraqi security
As the Marines cruised down Najaf’s neighborhoods and markets Monday, the scenes were similar to the days before the election – children traveling on mule-drawn carriages, elderly men riding rusty bicycles, children pause their soccer games to run to the side of the street to greet the Marines in usual fashion – “Mistah, mistah!”
Women clad in all black robes shop on streets packed with rows of fruit, fish and vegetable stands.
Several days prior to the elections, Marines patrolled the city’s streets and were pleased with what they saw of the Iraqi’s security plan in Najaf – police manning road blocks and check points, barriers and concertina wire around polling sites, most of which has ceased now that elections are over.
Godfredson, a 36-year-old Austin, Minn., native, and the rest of his anti-armor section spent Saturday conducting a final drive-through of the city, inspecting the Iraqis’ security at checkpoints and around the polling centers. He said he was impressed by the Iraqis’ overall security efforts Sunday.
“They did a good job out there,” said Godfredson. “They showed they had the area secure. It reconfirmed that they can stand up for themselves.”
Young added that the Iraqis’ ability to provide their own law enforcement on Sunday puts the people of Najaf closer to being self-contained - and not having to rely on the U.S. military for protection anymore.
“I don’t know if I’d say they’re 100-percent ready, but they’re definitely making huge steps,” said Young, leaning against his Humvee following a two-hour patrol Monday with his platoon and several soldiers from the 155th Brigade Combat Team – the Mississippi-based Army National Guard unit that is replacing the Marines in An Najaf and Karbala Provinces.
While some speculated that election day could have been an open invitation for violence in certain areas of Iraq, Sunday proved to be a quiet day in Najaf. No car bombs, no gun fights - just thousands of Iraqis walking to barricaded polling centers at the city’s schools to cast their vote.
“We were there if they needed us, but they didn’t need us,” said Capt. Michael S. Wilbur, 35, of Long Beach, Calif. “It was the first time I saw the city really click. It was like one flowing river - a single effort with everyone working together.”
“They (Iraqi police) were validated today – they proved themselves today,” he continued.
Time to go home
For the 2,200 some Marines assigned to An Najaf and Karbala Provinces, Sunday’s elections served as the culminating event to nine months of hard work; a final “mission completed” before they begin departing Iraq to return to their home base at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The first wave of Marines left this morning for Kuwait in 7-ton trucks jammed with sea bags, combat packs, and weapons. The rest of the unit will leave between now and March.
Army National Guardsmen from the Mississippi-based 155th Brigade Combat Team will officially take charge of An Najaf and Karbala Provinces in coming days, leaving the Marines to concentrate on the return trip home, and to plan ahead on how they will spend their vacation time.
Lance Cpl. Adrian Joyiens, from Tucson, Ariz., had two words to summarize his plans upon his return stateside – “Alcohol and (visit) my mom,” said the 22-year-old infantryman, who plans on getting out of the Marine Corps in June to attend college.
“I’m glad we’ve been able to stabilize their (Iraqi) government and help them be able to do things on their own,” said Joyiens. “It kind of compliments everything we’ve done here.”
Lance Cpl. Kevin M. Potts, a 21-year-old, 6-foot, 6-inch infantryman who lost three close friends during November’s heavy fighting in Fallujah, is looking forward to spending some of the extra money he made on deployment to sup-up his 1990 Mazda B2200 low-rider truck.
After that, he plans on displaying his pride and joy in local truck shows.
“That’s my biggest hobby,” said the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, native, tossing a Styrofoam football back and forth with Young as the setting Iraqi sun signals the end of post-election day. “Driving in these Humvees just isn’t the same.”
Others, like Sgt. Evan W. Clayton, will meet their children – born during their deployment here - for the first time. Clayton’s daughter, Brianna Mary, was born on Aug. 2,2004, the same day the Marines began combat operations against militant Sadr’s militia in Najaf.
“I can’t wait to tell her when she’s older,” said the 25-year-old Nentwa, Calif., native. “’Honey, the day you were born I was getting shot at.’”
“I think yesterday (election day) was a big sense of relief for a lot of these guys,” said Godfredson, counting off scores of machine gun ammunition following Monday’s patrol. As he places the brass bullets inside a half-full, green ammunition box, he breaks eye contact from his task just for a moment, watches his Marines throw the football back and forth, and sums up Sunday’s activities in three words: “Our last mission.”