CAMP AL QA'IM, Iraq -- Marines from 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment never thought they’d see the Al Qa’im region of Iraq again when they departed their military camp here in March last year.
One year later, the Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based unit has returned to this remote forward operating base here, located just east of the Syrian border in western Al Anbar Province, to continue to keep insurgents at bay and provide stability in the region.
But this time, they’ve got a new mission — assisting an Iraqi Army unit to eventually take control of the area.
The battalion has integrated Iraqi soldiers into daily operations, such as patrolling, responding to improvised explosive devices, manning security posts, and interacting with the local populace in this once insurgent-heavy region of Al Anbar Province.
The battalion’s deployment to Iraq is part of a regularly scheduled rotation of forces in western Al Anbar Province. More than 23,000 Marines and sailors of the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based I Marine Expeditionary Force have replaced the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based II Marine Expeditionary Force.
Last year, the battalion participated in a variety of major combat operations to quell insurgents throughout Al Anbar Province. This year, however, it’s the Iraqi Security Forces who will eventually take the lead while the Marines assist them.
But as the Marines advise their partnered Iraqi Army battalion how to conduct - and eventually take the lead in - counterinsurgency operations, the Iraqi soldiers offer their own unique abilities in the fight against terrorism, according to Lt. Col. Nicholas F. Marano, commander for 1st Bn., 7th Marines.
“By patrolling and operating with the Iraqi Forces, it will give our company commanders better intelligence and cultural awareness,” said Marano. “The Iraqi Army soldiers can tell the difference between someone local and someone from outside the area.”
Distinguishing between local townspeople and insurgents is harder for the Marines because they don’t have the same cultural familiarity of Iraq as the Iraqi soldiers.
Marano noted that an integral part of continuing Iraqi progress in the region is for Iraqi and Coalition forces to work with the local populace to integrate the Iraqi police back into the community.
“The implementation of an effective police force and supporting judicial system is an essential ingredient in the counterinsurgency fight because it bridges the gap between military action and local civic control,” added Maj. Mark D. Dietz, the battalion’s operations officer.
But while the Marines now have a battalion of Iraqi soldiers to help share the responsibility of security operations in this region, atmospherics in the Qa’im region “are at their highest levels and remain on the upswing,” according to Dietz.
“The battalion was fortunate in returning to an area that a high percentage of the Marines, particularly their junior leadership, are familiar with,” said Dietz. “However, the dynamics of the AO (area of operations) have changed dramatically since (we) were here last.”
In an effort to keep insurgents out of the Syrian border area, Coalition forces established multiple battle positions after last November’s Operation Steel Curtain, the largest counterinsurgency operation to date in western Al Anbar Province. During the 18-days of “Steel Curtain,” more than 2,500 Marines, sailors, soldiers and Iraqi soldiers cleared the cities of Husaybah and Karabilah of anti-Iraqi forces, often fighting insurgents house-to-house. The operation resulted in more than 250 killed or captured insurgents.
But once Iraqi soldiers and the Marines left the area, the “bad guys moved back in,” said Maj. Stanton L. Chambers, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment’s acting executive officer.
The Marines and Iraqi soldiers found a solution, though – they created several new, permanent battle posts to further prevent any free movement by insurgents back into the area once the Marines left, said Chambers, from Grand Prairie, Texas.
In short, the battle positions allow Coalition forces to keep a watchful eye on the region, discouraging insurgent activity. But establishing the positions was an achievement unto itself, according to Chambers.
The 36-year-old said that just several months ago, the region proved to be a hotbed of insurgent activity and home to some of the most “hellacious firefights,” according to Chambers.
Some of the battle positions took daily enemy fire, he recalled. But the Marines held their ground, and the results of the Marines’ and Iraqi soldiers’ efforts are now apparent: less insurgent activity, more cooperation from locals, and a securer environment for local leaders and the national Iraqi Government to operate in.
In addition to beefing up the Coalition’s presence in the area to keep insurgents out, Iraqi soldiers and Marines also regularly met with leaders and sheiks to address locals’ concerns.
“The Iraqi Army leaders know much of the tribal and municipal leaders and they are naturally going to work together,” said Marano. “I am enthusiastic about working with them and after meeting with the Iraqi Army leaders, they are enthusiastic to assume control of the battle positions.”
In addition to providing security here, Marines and Iraqi soldiers are also working close with the Iraqi Government to restore the local infrastructure. They’re working closely with local communities here to keep schools open, water treatment plants running, health clinics open and provide monetary assistance to those citizens whose homes have been destroyed from previous battles.
As 1st Bn., 7th Marines assumes control of the area, they are working hand-in-hand with the Iraqi soldiers to continue the progress that’s been made in the region over the past year.
Though Marano’s Marines are no rookies to the region on conducting counterinsurgency operations, the turnover between the two battalions was critical to a successful transition between the two units, as it provided invaluable information to assist the California-based Marines with advising the still-developing Iraqi Army unit here.
“IA (Iraqi Army) progress, particularly in the Al Qa’im region, has shown remarkable improvement since our last deployment,” said Dietz. “The IA Brigade is fully partnered with the Marines down to the squad and platoon level. All operations are planned and executed jointly with the Iraqis assuming the lead role at a progressive rate.”
“They (Iraqi soldiers) have their own standard operating procedures although they try to mimic the Marines. Once they learn what they need to know they will be alright,” said Staff Sgt. Robert A. Bridges, a machine gun section leader from Lima Company, 3rd Bn., 6th Marines - the Marine unit "1/7" has replaced.
The 34-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va., has spent six months working with Iraqi soldiers, including during major combat operations last November. He said he is confident the Iraqi soldiers will continue to progress with the new Marine unit.
A handful of the 1st Battalion’s Marines will be part of the local Military Transition Team – a group of Coalition servicemembers assigned to logistically assist and guide each Iraqi military unit’s transition to independent operations - and will have a more direct impact on the Iraqi soldiers’ development.
“Our goal is to teach the Iraqi Army soldiers until they can handle [operations] on their own,” said Lance Cpl. Mario B. Cia, 23, a squad automatic weapon gunner from Baker Company, 1st Bn., 7th Marines.
Though Marines from Baker Company have worked with the Iraqis for just a few days, they’ve already begun to notice progress.
“Some things that we teach them, such as weapons-handling procedures, they are getting it right the first time,” said Lance Cpl. Brandon M. McKinney, 23, another machine gunner from Baker Company. “Regardless of what happens here in the future, I know we did our best to train them.”
By year’s end, Coalition forces say Iraqi Security Forces will be operating independently in western Al Anbar Province.
But while Marines here are set on putting Iraqi Security forces at the forefront here, there is still work to be done, security to be provided. Prior experience from past deployments – especially from the battalion’s junior leadership – has given the Marines corporate knowledge that will allow them to extinguish any remaining pockets of the insurgency.
“A counterinsurgency is won and lost at the squad and platoon level where our greatest strength and experience lies,” said Dietz.