IRAQ: First in, now Marines may be first out
In 2003, when the U.S. decided to topple Saddam Hussein, the Marines led the way into Iraq.
Five years later, the Marines may be leading the U.S. on the way out.
In less than a year, the number of U.S. forces deployed to the sprawling Anbar province has dropped from 37,000 to 25,000, mostly Marines but also sailors, airmen and soldiers. Now Major Gen. John Kelly, the top Marine in Iraq, is preparing a recommendation for Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of all coalition forces, about an additional drawdown.
Kelly, commander of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Forward, will not talk numbers, but it is clear his recommendation will include a significant reduction. "I've got a lot of stuff I no longer need," Kelly said Sunday in a telephone interview from his headquarters at Camp Fallouja.
Kelly's recommendation will be considered by Petraeus as he shapes his overall report to President Bush about force levels. "If Anbar were its own country, not part of Iraq, I would say we could have gone home three months ago totally, except for a few advisers," Kelly said.
As Kelly sees it, the Marine mission in virtually complete in Anbar, which was once the heart of the Sunni insurgency and where Marines fought two prolonged battles in 2004 and numerous smaller ones since.
The insurgency has been all but wiped out, the economy is rebounding, and the Iraqi security forces have improved significantly, Kelly said.
The Marines are reducing their "footprint." Iraqi vehicles no longer have to pull over when Marine vehicles are on the road. Most Marine convoys are done at night to reduce the "in your face" aspect that annoys some Iraqis.
The large bases at Fallouja and Al Qaim are being turned over to the Iraqis. Camp Gannon in the border community of Husaybah has been moved to a smaller location.
Kelly just sent eight helicopters, plus personnel to fly and maintain them, to Afghanistan.
He has also put the brakes on U.S. spending, telling the Iraqi government in Baghdad that it should use its own money. "I've gotten kind of stingy recently," he said.
A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office last week found that the Iraqi government has an enormous surplus due to oil revenues but is spending virtually nothing on reconstruction.
Of $140 million available to him from the U.S., Kelly hopes to turn back $30 million to $40 million. He is pressing the Iraqi government to pay the estimated $23 million cost of closing Camp Fallouja.
Squabbling between the Sunni-led provincial government in Ramadi and the Shia-led central government in Baghdad continues to be a problem. Until Ramadi has greater trust in Baghdad, the provincial government is delaying a formal ceremony in which Marines will relinquish security responsibility for Anbar.
Kelly has warned the Baghdad leaders not to alienate Anbar to the point that provincial leaders follow the Kurdish model and seek a kind of autonomous status outside the control of the central government.
Improving the Baghdad-Anbar relationship is "the last 10 yards" of the immediate post-Saddam drive for stability in Anbar, Kelly said. But getting there is a job for Iraqis, not Americans.
"John Kelly and the Marines cannot effect closure of that last 10 yards," Kelly said.
--Tony Perry in San Diego
Photo: Iraqi woman and child at a school built by Iraqis and Marines in Fallouja. Credit: Tony Perry / Los Angeles Times