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U.S. Could Send Marines Back to Iraq as Soon as February

A deployment would probably include Camp Pendleton troops home only a few months.

October 21, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — The Pentagon may send a contingent of Marines back to Iraq early next year, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here Monday.

"We're looking at the potential of using Marine Corps units in that rotation," Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers said in an informal address to several thousand Marines sitting on the tarmac of this sprawling base. Most of the Marines served in the Iraq war and have only returned in the last few months.

Pentagon planners have suggested in recent weeks that the Marine Corps may be ordered to send troops back to Iraq, but Myers' comments were the strongest indication yet that such a decision is imminent. Myers said the Marines could be deployed as soon as February.

Any new deployment of Marines to Iraq is likely to include troops from Camp Pendleton, because under the military's method of dividing up the globe into "areas of responsibility," Iraq falls to the base. The 1st Marine Division, headquartered at Pendleton, sent 22,000 combat troops to Iraq earlier this year.

Although the 1st Marine Division has left Iraq, other Marines from Camp Pendleton are there now as part of an operation near the southern port of Umm al Qasr to curb the smuggling of oil and fuel. And the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, also based at Pendleton, with 2,200 combat Marines, is already set to deploy to the Persian Gulf region early next year.

In a brief news conference after addressing the Marines, Myers said no decision had been made on what kind of mission a Marine Corps unit might be assigned. But he said the overall goal of U.S. troops was to "enhance security and work with our Iraqi partners."

"The Marines could fit in there in many ways," Myers said.

Marines who heard Myers' comments said they were ready to return to Iraq.

"If we have to go back, we'll go back until the job is done," said Staff Sgt. Paul Oglesby, a veteran of the Iraq and Persian Gulf wars.

"That's what Marines do: get the job done."

"If they send us, we're ready," said Cpl. Christopher Asakevich. "And if we have to go another time after that, we'll do that too."

Myers thanked the Marines for "leading the way to Baghdad for all U.S. forces."

Standing in front of Cobra and Huey helicopters used in combat missions in Iraq, he told the Marines that the U.S. had to prove to terrorist elements in Iraq that it would not leave, despite mounting casualties.

"They think that's our mentality: that we're weak," he said. "Now they're working on us in ways [to try to] break our will. It's not going to work.... We will continue the job of protecting people who can't protect themselves."

Myers declined to comment on the criminal charges against eight Marine reservists accused of mistreating prisoners in Iraq. Two of the eight are charged with negligent homicide for not protecting a prisoner who died while being held with other detainees.

But he told the troops he was pleased with their humane treatment of Iraqi civilians. "The sensitivity you showed on the way to Baghdad was absolutely superb," he said.

Myers said his visit to Camp Pendleton and other West Coast bases was not spurred by reports of sagging morale. Rather, he said, he wanted to thank troops for their service in Iraq.

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