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IRAQ: Winning but not yet won

March 21, 2008 | 11:10 am

Fallouja_2

Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the top Marine in Iraq, says it may take several more years of U.S. involvement in Al Anbar province before the Iraqis are ready to stand completely on their own.

Still, he believes the mission can be accomplished even during a phased draw down of troops. At the present, the U.S. has about 35,000 troops in Anbar.

He cites progress through the province: Iraqi army units and police gaining competency, businesses and schools opening up in war-ravaged Fallouja and elsewhere, the beginnings of cooperation between the provincial government in Ramadi and local town councils.

The goal, Kelly said, is to get the central government in Baghdad to be more concerned about Anbar. Call it nation building if you like.

"What we can do is help the Anbar folks be patient, to teach them to go to Baghdad and lobby," he said. "Not to go up and scream but rather go there and say, 'Here's the problem and here's the solution.' "

There are still ominous signs, including the presence of insurgent wannabes. There has been a small up tick in the arrest of would-be suicide bombers, including boys in their early teens. Marines do frequent late-night raids on suspected insurgents in Fallouja.

In a visit to the city jail in Fallouja, Kelly, through an interpretor, wanted to find out what makes young Iraqis willing to kill themselves. He was taken aback by the profound sense of hopelessness felt by some of the would-be bombers that makes them vulnerable to recruiting by hardcore insurgents.

For Kelly, Iraq has become a family affair. He helped lead the assault on Baghdad in 2003 and then led a force to Tikrit to confront Saddam Hussein diehards. He was part of the fight in Fallouja in the spring of 2004. Both of his sons are Marines and have served in Iraq.

"We're winning but we haven't won yet," Kelly said.

— Tony Perry, in Fallouja

Photo: Students at a reopened school in Fallouja. The school, which had been closed by Taliban-esque insurgents because they opposed education for girls, was destroyed in the 2004 fighting. It's been rebuilt by the U.S. and Iraqis. Credit: Tony Perry / Los Angeles Times

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