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Marines work to improve living conditions, infrastructure in Iraq’s Haditha Triad region

14 May 2006 | Sgt. Roe F. Seigle

Maj. Chris K. Mace loves to hand out cash.

The 38-year-old leads a handful of Marines who spend their days rebuilding schools, hospitals and giving monetary reimbursement to Iraqis whose property has been damaged during three years worth of combat operations.

“We have made a lot of progress, but there is still a lot more to be made,” said Mace, a Pottstown, Pa., native who leads one of 17 civil affairs teams operating throughout Al Anbar province.  “We are going to make as big an impact on the community as we can.” 

So far, the U.S. has spent more than $230,000 in renovations and quality of life improvement projects, such as repairing schools and water pipes in the Haditha Triad area – a Euphrates River Valley-city with about 75,000 people, which is still considered by some as a hotbed of insurgent activity. 

Detachment One of the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based 3rd Civil Affairs Group, which is comprised of more than 30 Marines, works throughout Al Anbar Province with local government officials, sheikhs, mayors and other key leaders to identify and jumpstart various reconstruction and quality of life projects designed to rebuild damaged infrastructure in the region.

Notable progress in the region’s stability has made such civil affairs projects within the region possible, said Mace.

“As security and stability in the (area) increase, the willingness of the local populace to cooperate with us will as well,” said Mace.

The Iraqi Army and the Hawaii-based 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment – the U.S. military unit assigned to this area of Iraq – have captured more than 30 insurgents and shut down three insurgent cells in the Triad area in the past two months, according to Marine leaders here. 

Six months ago, insurgents would have intimidated and threatened any potential local contractors with death or kidnapping for cooperating with coalition forces, said Mace.

“Contractors especially are often afraid to work on projects we ask them to undertake,” said Mace.

But as security in the region continues to improve, so does the potential for progress for the Marines to freely work with local engineers and contractors to complete reconstruction and infrastructure projects, which also help fuel the local economy by providing jobs to local workers.

That, in turn, helps “honest and hardworking men” support their families, said Mace.

“It is going to take a long time and a lot of work to rebuild the Al Anbar province,” said Mace. “Until then, the Marines will continue to plan future projects and make as much of a positive impact as they can until they rotate back to the States.” 

Most recently, Mace and his Marines went to several schools in the region and repaired doors and windows which were damaged by insurgents, said Mace.

A principal at one of the local elementary schools said the students were in dire need of basic school supplies such as paper, markers and pencils.

The Marines delivered with hundreds of pencils, markers, backpacks embroidered with cartoon characters, erasers and paper notebooks. 

Staff Sgt. Omar Palaciosreal, a 32-year-old from San Bernardino, Calif., and a civil affairs team chief, says small projects such as delivering school and medical supplies can have just as much of an impact on local infrastructure as larger reconstruction projects. 

“That school had nothing but a chalkboard in it and the teachers had to give lessons with only that commodity,” said Palaciosreal. “It was a sad sight and I believe we made it better.”

Before they arrived in Iraq more than six weeks ago, Mace and his Marines underwent extensive training on Arabic culture, language, religion and history – training which comes in handy when the Marines meet with Iraqi leadership to plan future projects, said Mace.

“Many of the local people are starting to realize the Marines are good people and are concerned with their wellbeing,” said an Iraqi interpreter assigned to work with Mace and his team of Marines.  “The Marines have begun to build good rapport with the residents and this opens the door for us to communicate with them.”

Though coalition forces make every effort to minimize collateral damage in local towns and villages during military operations, some damage can occur, such as broken doors and damaged vehicles, said Sgt. Paul Flores, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles.

The money used to reimburse locals for such damages are more than just reparation payments, said Flores. When the civil affairs team visits locals to pay them, they can explain that the damages were not caused intentionally or maliciously – which often times means just as much as monetary reimbursement to locals, he said.

“Sometimes the fact we go to the individual and apologize to them for the damages means more to them than the money does,” said Flores.

With six months left before they rotate out of Iraq, Mace’s team of Marines will continue to work with local Iraqi leaders to improve quality of life and infrastructure within the Triad – which incorporates the cities of Haditha, Haqliniyah and Barwanah along the Euphrates River.

Future projects include repair of a local hospital, the restoration of the local phone system, a “trash for cash” type program, which encourages locals to clean-up their neighborhoods for money, and improvements to local drainage systems.

The Marines are also working to improve local communications by repairing the local telephone system, which was destroyed by insurgents so residents can not pass information about insurgent activity to coalition forces, said Mace.

According to Mace, these cleanups not only provide paying jobs to locals, but also prevent health risks that stem from bacteria generated from excessive garbage and stagnant water, which children are exposed to when they play in neighborhoods with such conditions.

“You earn a lot of credibility when you show residents you care about their well-being and their children,” said Palaciosreal.

Email Sgt. Seigle at: seiglemf@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil.