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Karbala getting back on its feet

19 May 2003 | Lance Cpl. Brent Walker

Infantrymen from 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines still patrol the central Iraqi city of Karbala, but it's a small group of Marine reservists who do the nuts and bolts work of getting the town working again.

Marines form the 3rd Civil Affairs Group have been hard at work for the last month getting Karbala's police force, fire department and hospitals, as well as its power, water and sewer systems, up and running.

"The Marine Corps definitely put this city back on its feet," said Sgt. Jorge Bayardo, 26, of Los Angeles, a 3rd CAG team member. "Our first priority was to get the main civil defense departments (police and fire departments and the hospitals) back on line."

The CAG Marines were pleasantly surprised by the lack of widespread looting and other crime in Karbala, a city of over a half-million residents and one of the holiest cities in Iraq. That made CAG's job easier.

"We thought it was going to be like Baghdad, with a lot of crime and looters," Bayardo said. "We thought we'd see a city destroyed. Thank God it wasn't."

Bayardo explained that four-man CAG teams split up and assign themselves the task of revitalizing a particular department. Bayardo found himself the interim chief of Karbala's fire department, as well as its deputy police chief. The CAG teams took three days to assess what each of their departments needed in terms of personnel and equipment.

"We contacted the department heads, and they gave us a list of employees and a list of what they'd need to get back in operation. By the fourth day, we were at work," Bayardo said. "It was like creating a new city."

With the help of the CAG Marines, Iraqi firefighters repaired four of their trucks and had their fire department back in operation in five days. The 500-man police force was back on patrol, mostly with the Marines of 3/7, within a week.

"We gave 200 AK-47s to the police and brought in four Los Angeles Police Department officers (serving as scout/snipers with 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines) to train them," said Bayardo, himself a Covina, Calif. police officer in civilian life. "They learned self defense, patrolling techniques, vehicle searches, personnel searches, booking and how to run a jail."

Bayardo said about 30 police officers attended the training. They, in turn, will soon train other officers under CAG supervision. The training is already transforming the Karbala police into a more professional law-enforcement agency, Bayardo said.

"Due to the training we're giving them, they're taking initiative," Bayardo said. "They're arresting criminals from petty thieves all the way up to murderers. They're also turning up Baath Party officials. They're getting more confident with their skills all the time.

"It was a lot of work at the beginning, but it's worth it. It's like seeing your baby learn to walk," Bayardo said.

The Marines are forming close working relationships with Iraqi police officers and firefighters, Bayardo explained.

"This has been a rewarding experience," he said. "We came here with a 'watch your back' attitude, but working with the police and fire departments has helped me see that these aren't bad. They've become very protective of us. They support us in any and every way."

Bayardo said CAG's job in Karbala is much easier, thanks to the professionalism of 3/7 Marines, who officially control the town.

"The Marines interact with the residents in a positive way. They'll drop what they're doing and just play with the kids for a while," Bayardo said. "We're showing the Iraqis that U.S. Marines aren't just about combat. We like the same things they do They know we're here to help them."