HABBANIYAH, Iraq --
Two years ago, Al Anbar was said to be the most violent province in Iraq. It was a place where the insurgency in Iraq had begun and where the bloodiest battles took place. Today, thanks to the hard work and sacrifices made by the Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen who served in the area, it has become a model for the rest of Iraq.
Marines of 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1, have put in countless hours and have risked their lives every day to ensure their area of operations within Al Anbar province stays that way until they leave Iraq and beyond.
“In the last year, violence in Al Anbar province has dropped 80-90 percent. The reason the province is the way it is now is a result of the hard work the Marines are putting forth every day along with their tactical patience and balance,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jim M. Roussell, the assistant intelligence officer for 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines. “This battalion has worked very hard and has done an outstanding job in accomplishing its goals… and what we want to do is set up the unit that comes in after us for success”
With the reduction in violence, the extraction and refining of natural resources such as oil have begun to stabilize; furthering exportation and significantly increasing the country’s gross domestic product.
Iraq’s spending budget in 2007 was $41 billion and has increased to $70 billion for 2008, according to the Special Inspector General’s Quarterly report to the United States Congress.
“That means that, economically, once the violence is under control, this country will be just fine,” said Roussell, who is a lieutenant in the Chicago Police Department when not either drilling or deployed with the reserve battalion.
Although it cannot be said that the violence is under control, May resulted in 19 U.S. deaths, which is the lowest U.S. death toll in Iraq since the invasion five years ago according to Department of Defense reports.
“It just shows that progress is being made, but it’s not easy. It’s hard and time consuming,” Roussell said. “We’re trying to plant this difficult flower in the middle of the desert and it’s just beginning to bud.”
For the remainder of their deployment, 2nd Bn., 24th Marines have many goals to carry out and turn over to the next unit, but to Roussell, three stood out above the rest.
“First, we want to establish a government based on the will and determination of the Iraqi people. Second, that government has to be legitimate in their eyes. And third, we have to allow the transition of power to provincial Iraqi control,” he said.
In the progress of these goals, Roussell related coalition efforts in Iraq to the popular American sport of football.
“We’re very close. It’s like in football when you’re down to just the last five yards and you’ve got the winning score on the board,” he said. “You don’t want to make any mistakes in those last two minutes to change the outcome of the game.”
With it being the second deployment in the last four years for the Chicago-based unit, there has been a significant amount of differences between this deployment and the 2004 deployment just south of Bagdhad.
“Last time, there were five mortar attacks on us in the first week we were there. The Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army were almost non-existent and the whole deployment was almost all kinetic (warfare),” said Sgt. Billy J. Benskin, a team leader with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines. “This time, we have different missions than last time and the IA and IP are doing a great job in providing security for the area. It seems like the Iraqi people are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
In seeing that light, the Iraqi people have begun to understand that the Coalition forces are not here as occupants of their country, but have realized that they are here to help.
“By doctrine, what we do as an American military, is face evil in the world and give people the opportunity to determine their own destiny,” said Roussell. “We no longer have a doctrine on occupation; we just don’t have one. We don’t believe in it and that’s why the American people call on us.”
“We don’t invade countries to invade them. We’re not doing this for territorial expansionism” he said. “We’re not trying to make Iraq the 51st state.”
With the change in attitude of the Iraqi people towards American forces, the potential for this historically and environmentally rich country to flourish is beginning to grow.
“The Iraqi people thought we were coming in to take their country over in the beginning but, in fact, we don’t have any interest in that at all, it’s just the opposite,” said Roussell. “We want to turn Iraq into a very prosperous country and a model location. Iraq is a very pretty country. Between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, there’s (thousands) of years of history. It’s the cradle of civilization. You go to the market, they have tomatoes, oranges, watermelons and every other fruit and vegetable imaginable.”
Although an American presence in Iraq may continue for years to come, Roussell remains optimistic about where Iraq is headed.
“You look back at the history of counterinsurgency and most of the time, you’re talking about a 10-year investment,” he said. “We’ve already made the investment on the front half, now we just need to finish it off on the back end.”