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Iraqis, Marines work together to rebuild lives in Al Anbar province

22 Jun 2006 | Sgt. Roe F. Seigle

As Sgt. Brett Bartels stood in front of a military vehicle handing out hundreds of stuffed animals and soccer balls on a dusty road in Barwana, his goal was simple – make sure each child went home with a smile on his face. 

Such humanitarian operations, are the reason many of the local residents are starting to trust Marines, the 23-year-old native of Canoga, Park, Calif., said, and why insurgents are quickly losing their foothold in the city of 40,000 nestled along the Euphrates River, just southeast of Haditha. 

“When we arrived in Barwana in March, the insurgents would threaten and intimidate anyone who cooperated with Marines,” said Bartel, a team leader with 3rd Civil Affairs Group, a Marine unit with the primary mission of assisting Iraqi communities with improving local infrastructures and governance. 

“The insurgents do not have that power anymore and they are desperate to get it back,” said Bartel. “It is evident in their futile attacks that rarely produce the results they want.” 

As the insurgency is quelled, Marines here are focusing on developing and implementing programs that will one day be turned over to Iraqi Government workers in Barwana after coalition forces withdraw from the city, said Bartels.

One program Marines are helping Barwana’s government to implement is a vehicle registration mandate. The program would require all vehicle owners to register their vehicles with the local government. Upon registration, vehicle owners are given an identification card, similar to a U.S. driver’s license, and are entered into a registry database.

“It is going to be just like the Department of Motor Vehicles we have in each state,” said Bartels. 

Many residents support the idea – hundreds have lined up outside the Marines’ forward operating base here to register their vehicles. More and more residents show up to register their vehicles since the program began one month ago, said Bartels. 

“The insurgents tried to intimidate the locals when we first started the program with various threats if they came to the base,” said Sgt. Jose Soto, 25, an assistant team leader with the civil affairs group. “The residents stood up to them and took our side in the fight.” 

As a result of the program, the Marines were able to capitalize on spreading the word about future police recruitment in the city, said Soto, a native of Costa Mesa, Calif. 

Many male residents have expressed an interest in becoming police officers and are willing to attend a police training camp in Baghdad, said Soto. 

A police force, coupled with an Army capable of independent operations, is necessary in order to provide security to residents without the assistance of coalition forces, said Soto. 

“It is just a matter of time before people will start seeing some of the residents who are currently unemployed wearing a police uniform and protecting them from insurgents,” said Soto. “The insurgency is crumbling in this city and we are winning the fight.” 

When the Marines arrived in Barwana more than three months ago, residents would not communicate with them out of fear of retribution from insurgents. Now, residents are beginning to welcome Marines and Iraqi soldiers in broad daylight – a sure sign of a weakening insurgency, said Soto. 

To further combat the insurgency, the Marines also implemented a parole system for citizens recently released from confinement, another program which is in its beginning stages.

Once released from prison and back into the Barwana populace, former inmates are put on parole and are required to check in periodically. Iraqi soldiers patrolling Barwana’s streets often stop by the parolees’ houses to make sure he is behaving.

There are only a handful of residents currently on parole, but as more inmates are released and returned to society, the number will grow, the Marines say. This will make parolees think twice before carrying out further attacks against coalition forces. Local leaders in the community are enthusiastically supporting the program, said Bartels.

“It is easy for an insurgent released from prison to turn back to the insurgency,” said Bartels. “This will make them think twice about returning to their old ways.”

However, the parole system is not designed to punish inmates further after they have served their time. The Marines are helping the inmates re-adjust back into society and helping those who once had jobs get them back once released. 

“We are not going to hold grudges against those that have broken the law,” said Bartels. “We want all the residents to know that as the insurgency crumbles, they will have a chance to have a fresh start in their lives and live in peace.” 

Now the Marines are reaching out to the younger generation of Iraqis with an incentive for them to focus on their education through a program known as “gifts for good grades.”

The program allows children to come to the base with their report cards and, depending on the quality of their grades, they are rewarded with toys and candy. 

Soto came up with the program earlier this month when a child asked him for a soccer ball as he made an identification card for his parents. 

“I asked him if he had a copy of his report card and he ran home and got it,” said Soto. “The child made good grades in school so I gave him a soccer ball.” 

The child spread the word about the gift to other neighborhood children. Soon after, many more children showed outside the forward operating base and showed their report cards to Soto in the hopes of receiving a gift.

“I would give each child at least some candy,” said Soto. “The soccer balls were the most sought after item so I awarded that to the children with the highest grades. Others would get candy or stuffed animals.”

Students began asking their teachers for copies of their report cards from previous grading periods after hearing about the program, said Soto.

“Our main goal with this program is to encourage the youth to excel in their education and lead more meaningful lives instead of having to turn to the insurgency for a source of income,” said Soto, after returning from a three-hour patrol in Barwana where he and Marines from Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment handed out more than two hundred toys to local children. 

“People here trust us,” said Bartels. “With that trust we are hoping to build the basic programs needed to properly govern a city.” 

However, there are still insurgents in the city who will go to any length to disrupt the Marines and their humanitarian operations. Many local contractors want to help rebuild the cities infrastructure. They have been offered bids on many projects, such as rebuilding schools, bridges and hospitals, but they still fear the insurgents. 

“There are several projects we want to see completed before we leave, primarily the schools and the bridge reconstruction,” said Bartels. “We have approached several contractors in the city with project ideas, but they are threatened with kidnapping and murder by the insurgents.” 

With the new parole system in place and the continued patrols by Marines, Bartels said he believes contractors will soon feel safe to begin working hand-in-hand with Marines. 

“The insurgents are only hurting themselves and their fellow citizens when they threaten the contractors who are willing to rebuild the city’s infrastructure,” said Bartels. “The Marines are weeding them out, though.  We are dedicated to helping these people and fighting the insurgents.  In the end, we will succeed.” 

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