CAMP AL-MAHMUDIYAH, Iraq -- Marines from 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, based out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., took the reins of the operational area from the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment March 26.
"Our goal is to stabilize the area by developing it economically, which will provide the jobs to give people skills," said Maj. Christopher G. Dixon, executive officer for 2nd Bn, 2nd Marine Regiment. The Bellefonte, Pa. Marine added, "We're ultimately trying to help them take over their own economy and government."
The 505th was crucial in establishing the projects and goals the Marines would need for their success. They established town councils in the surrounding cities and began civil affairs projects aimed at improving the quality of life of Iraqi citizens.
The Army unit set the Marines up for success by investing almost $2 million in projects covering facets of life ranging from education, clean water, security, and sewage treatment in addition to improvements in the Iraqi economy. The Marines plan on continuing the efforts to improve the lives of the Iraqi citizens.
"There are a lot of signs of success we're seeing out in the towns, said Army Lt. Col. Pete Johnson, commanding officer, 3rd Battalion, 505th PIR. "The fact the markets are booming commercially is a direct result of us creating an environment that would support capitalism."
The Fort Bragg, N.C. soldier added, "The economic engine came back to life during our stay here. There was a mixed response from the Iraqi populace when we first came here in August, 2003. Over time we've been able to change the Iraqis view to see us positively."
As the Marines interact with the Iraqi people on every level from the commanding officer to the lowest ranking rifleman on a patrol, they get a feel for the attitude of the Iraqis toward the coalition forces.
"We recognize that this is still a dangerous place, and it's great that the Iraqi people are working with the local police forces to help ensure their safety," Dixon added.
Dixon said most of the Iraqi citizens are patriotic and dedicated to furthering their country.
"The biggest threat we've faced so far is improvised explosive devices," Dixon said. "He added we're confident that every Marine has training on how to deal with them. Many improvised explosive devices have been reported to the local Iraqi police force, which in turn reports their location to the Marines so the devices can be properly and safely disposed of.
The Marines prepared themselves for a seamless transition from the Army in every aspect of camp life and operations in their first few weeks aboard the camp.
"We started with right seat rides during patrols, where the Marines could observe how the Army did things and learn as much as they could about their area of operations," Dixon said. "This moved to left seat rides, where there were only a few soldiers present on the patrols to give Marines pointers or answer questions they had about what the Army unit had experienced in that area during their deployment there. This culminated in a complete changeover on March 26.
"We're bringing everything a normal infantry battalion brings to the fight, with a few additions," he added. "We also have motor transport, engineer, and communications attachments."
The Marine battalion also has the experience of months of training in support and stability operations under their belt. The SASO training replicated the environment they would face in Iraq, so the Marines would be prepared to deal with both dealing with enemy threats and being respectful to the Iraqi citizens at the same time.
"It is hard to find an enemy who could be hiding in plain sight," Johnson explained. "That was a difficult part about our operations here. But I'm very optimistic. We're being replaced by a professional and determined force that has studied hard and prepared for many months for this mission."
One message the colonel emphasized to Marines reliving his camp is to never become complacent.
"You've got to take care of your buddy and maintain discipline, and without question, respect the Iraqi people," Johnson said.