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Southern California-based battalion wraps up seven-month deployment in Iraq-Syria border region

11 Sep 2006 | Cpl. Antonio Rosas

After more than seven months of training Iraqi Security Forces and providing security to the Al Qa’im Region, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment is returning home.

More than 1,000 Marines from the Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based battalion arrived here in March, trained Iraqi soldiers and introduced the region’s first police force in more than three years. 

The Marines, who spent the summer months away from family and friends in 110-plus degree weather, while clad in more than 60 pounds of body armor and ammunition, will return to the states in time to spend the year’s remaining holidays with their loved ones.

The unit replacing 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, or “first team,” is the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment — pronounced “three four,” — who also claim Twentynine Palms, Calif., as their home base.

The region was once a hotbed of insurgent activity and the site of a major offensive operation by Marines less than a year ago.  Life here has returned to a state of normalcy thanks to the work of Marines and Iraq Security Forces, said Tekan Farhan Tekan, the mayor of Al Qa’im..

“Several months ago Al Qa’im was an area of great turbulence and fighting. Today that is not the case and the people here are once again safe,” said Farhan at a recent meeting introducing the incoming battalion. “I thank the Marines for the hard work they did working with our Iraqi Forces and look forward to working with the new Marines.”

Farhan thanked the Marines for facilitating one of the major improvements to the region — the construction of a bridge over the Euphrates River connecting the cities of Ramana and Karabilah. The bridge has helped stimulate the local economy and allows locals greater access to the region’s hospital in Husaybah, a city of about 50,000.

Tribal sheikhs, who are the spokesmen for locals here, also praised the work done by the Marines and Iraqi Security Forces in improving security to the region. Just one year ago the region was overrun by insurgents who had wiped out the police force, leaving the bulk of security operations in the Marines’ hands.

During the Fall of 2005, Marines from the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment — pronounced “three six” — conducted a large-scale offensive operation dubbed “Steel Curtain,” which ridded the region of  insurgents mostly comprised of terrorists and foreign fighters who made their way across the border from Syria.

“First team” capitalized on “three six’s” achievements and has continued improving security and training the Iraqi Security Forces. 

Today, the Marines live inside the cities and towns alongside Iraqi soldiers and share the brunt of security with Iraqi soldiers and police.

“The Iraqi Police and Marines have developed a solid working relationship that has denied the insurgents from carrying out their missions,” said 1st Lt. Daniel F. Davis, executive officer for the battalion’s Company C. The company works with Iraqi Forces in Karabilah, a city of about 30,000 in the Al Qa’im region.

Local police led security at two of the region’s first public soccer games in more than three years and have been uncovering weapons caches and detaining insurgents on their own for the past several months — something unheard of just four months ago due to a lack of a trained and equipped police force. During several recent Iraqi police recruiting drives, hundreds of local men showed up in the hopes of becoming a policeman.

“I joined the Iraqi police because I don’t want the insurgents to come back to my town and hurt the people I know,” said a 24-year-old man from the Euphrates River village of Ramana — through an interpreter. “I know people who have been intimidated by the terrorists and that is not going to happen with so many police around.”

The man was one of 400 new police officers fresh out of the police academy who will join the more than 600 Iraqi police officers already operating throughout the Al Qa’im region. Several months ago the police were conducting joint operations with Marines and Iraqi soldiers. Now, police are providing security on their own, operating from their police stations in cities like Husaybah, Karabilah and Ubaydi.

“When it came time to provide security for the soccer games, we (Marines) let the police run the show and we were simply advisors,” said Davis, 27, from Chicago, Ill. 

That gave provided assurance for the citizens that their police force was in charge, not insurgents, and quite capable of providing a secure environment for the games, said Davis.

While security in the region improved, Marines still faced threats from improvised explosive devices — the biggest killer of Coalition Forces according to a Department of Defense website.

The Marines here uncovered more than 140 IEDs and weapons caches during their seven-month deployment. Along with securing the region’s IED-laden roads, building rapport with the local populace was another priority for the Marines here.

“There were parts of the region here where there had been no prior Coalition Force presence,” said Capt. John W. Black, the commanding officer for the battalion’s weapons company. “We went out to those villages and started building relationships with the people just by patrolling daily or stopping by to speak with them through an interpreter every so often.”

By maintaining a regular presence in those villages, it kept insurgents from intimidating the locals and making the area a base of operations, said the 33-year-old from Stockton, Calif.

The Marines’ success in the Al Qa’im region in building up the Iraqi Security Forces and establishing good relationships with locals reflects the advice their battalion commander gave them as they arrived here seven months ago.

“I told my Marines they should conduct themselves as if they were guests in another person’s home,” said Lt. Col. Nicholas F. Marano, first team’s commanding officer. “I believe we have done just that.”

Email Cpl. Rosas at rosasa@gcmnf-wiraq.usmc.mil