RAMADI, Iraq (January 20, 2009) --
Marines with Regimental Combat Team 1 turned another page in the history books, completing the regiment’s third tour in Iraq in only four years, Jan. 20.
RCT-1 was the first Marine Corps unit to take command in the eastern region of al Anbar Province, a mostly Sunni tribal area that includes such vital cities as Fallujah, Saqlawiyah and Karmah.
It is also one of the Corps’ only units to participate in the march up through Baghdad in 2003 and in both Operation Vigilant Resolve and Operation al Fajr in Fallujah in 2004, where they saw some of the heaviest combat of the war in Iraq.
The regiment again took command of the province’s eastern region 12 months ago, and jumped on a wave of momentum set by its predecessors during the last few years to continue the region’s advancements in security, development and governance.
The Marines have seen a lot of positive change since they started their tour. When they arrived the Anbar Awakening had reached its pinnacle, the troop surge was still in effect and al Qaeda was beginning its decline.
Security in al Anbar Province and throughout Iraq had improved enough by early summer to begin drawing down Coalition forces.
In March, the regiment had taken over security in Ramadi, a city of nearly 1.2 million people, and its area of operations grew 5,200 square miles, twice its original size. Since then, its number of forces was reduced from approximately 8,600 early in the deployment to only about 3,800 today.
The challenge in growing geographically while reducing personnel was maintaining momentum, according to Col. Lewis A. Craparotta, the regiment’s commander.
Yet on Sept. 1, the regiment handed over control of security in the region to the Government of Iraq following the notable Provincial Iraqi Control ceremony in Ramadi, Aug. 26, during which local Iraqi leaders signed a Command and Control Memorandum of Understanding.
The success the regiment is having on the battlefield today is the result of five years of Coalition forces’ sacrifices, but a lot of credit should also go to Iraqi security forces and the military training teams who trained them.
Iraq’s army and police units have grown from a “fledgling police and military force to a fully capable and operational counterinsurgency force in an amazingly short amount of time,” according to Maj. Tony Barrett, the RCT-1 intelligence officer.
“Al Anbar has not had this good of an outlook in the millennia-long history of its people,” said Barrett. “There are constantly improving essential services, increasing political rivalries that are not turning violent, multiple internal and foreign investment firms looking to invest in al Anbar and a sustained reduction in violence that is making this all possible.”
To support reconstruction efforts in al Anbar, RCT-1 has spent over $50 million in aid spanning a range of projects from repairing battle-damaged buildings to purchasing school supplies.
Capt. Emily Grant, the embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team liaison officer with RCT-1, said money the regiment put into the local economy has spurred the economic recovery eastern al Anbar is experiencing today.
“This economic recovery is evident to anyone driving down a city street,” said Grant. “Construction companies are rebuilding privately-owned buildings, restaurants are opening daily, auto-repair shops are doing brisk business and billboards are advertising all sorts of goods for sale. The economy has really taken off.”
Some of the money, she said, has also supported small business owners who often face significant financial difficulties. The regiment has provided $90 thousand in grants to supplement business loans when traditional banks have been unwilling to lend.
To solve the loan problem, RCT-1 worked closely with the United States Agency for International Development to expand branches of the Al Takadum micro-finance agency into Fallujah and Ramadi.
But the aid RCT-1 and other Coalition forces have provided was not handed over without holding the Iraqi government accountable.
Marines have been meeting twice weekly with essential services managers at al Anbar’s provincial government center, and USAID has provided training programs, technical expertise and budgeting software to improve their budget planning and spending.
“Budget planning and budget execution is, in my opinion, the key to Iraq’s future,” said Grant.
Part of the budget problem has also been ethno-sectarian struggles between al Anbar and the rest of Iraq, which has led to gross underfunding of the region by the central government.
Coalition forces are hoping upcoming elections throughout Iraq will help to solve some of the budget problems.
“Eastern al Anbar needs to be able to secure funding from the national government to enable industrial reconstruction that will offer jobs to all of its people as well as people from outside Anbar,” said Barrett. “But I think great hope exists in the upcoming (provincial) elections and next year’s national elections.”
Iraq’s provincial elections are scheduled to take place Jan. 31, a short time after Marines with RCT-1 have made their way home to reunite with friends and family in the U.S.
Though they are leaving Iraq behind, possibly for the last time, their efforts and sacrifices will live on.
“While this deployment may be closing the Iraq chapter in RCT-1’s illustrious history there is much we can look back on and be proud of,” said Barrett. “We continue to mourn the loss of our brothers and sisters we have lost on the battlefields and we can honestly say that they did not die in vain; the Marines and sailors of RCT-1 served their memory well and there are literally hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that have their sacrifice to thank as they look towards a bright and prosperous future.”