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November 18, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — About 350 Marines here and at Camp Pendleton are being trained as advisors to the Iraqi army, in the hopes that a strategy honed during the Vietnam War can be used to improve Iraq's military and hasten the withdrawal of U.S. personnel.

"These are our best and brightest," said Col. Tom Greenwood, who is heading the effort. Most of the Marines involved -- who volunteered for the special, and especially dangerous, duty -- are combat veterans. They have been to Iraq before.

Split into teams of 11 to 15 men, the Marines will provide monthly evaluations of the Iraqi troops they are embedded with. In many cases, that will mean living outside the security of U.S. bases.

Only when the advisors believe the Iraqi battalions are battle-worthy should the U.S. forces leave, Greenwood said.

"Our No. 1 priority is to train and mentor the Iraqi forces and, if necessary, to neutralize the enemy," said Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. More than 20,000 troops from the force are set to deploy to Iraq early next year.

Sattler and other officers say the advisor approach is preferable to setting a fixed deadline for withdrawal, as some politicians are demanding.

Think of the U.S. forces as a grizzly bear backing up the Iraqis in their fight against insurgency, Sattler said: "The grizzly bear can move back farther and farther as the Iraqis get better."

Army and Marine units in Iraq's Al Anbar province -- where the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force is headed -- have begun an advisory effort, which Sattler hopes to expand and refine.

The Marines preparing for deployment receive training in a mock Iraqi village built in the open-desert portion of the Twentynine Palms base. Two hundred Marines, dressed as civilians, play Iraqis who confront the troops.

In addition, the Marines who will act as advisors undergo an intensive two-week course at Camp Pendleton that involves lectures and additional field exercises.

"We have taken a page from Vietnam," Sattler said. In Vietnam, the "combined action platoon" concept brought U.S. and Vietnamese troops together in a counterinsurgency strategy.

Bing West, former assistant Defense secretary in the Reagan administration and author of two books on the Marines in Iraq, said the advisor idea involved a trade-off of "risk of casualties versus [the] reward of better-trained Iraqi soldiers."

"On balance, placing Marines among Iraqi soldiers is the fastest means of training," he said. "It involves risk, but the Marines will volunteer in overwhelming numbers."

Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel and author of "The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century," said he would like the advisor course at Camp Pendleton to be expanded to six or 12 months, including language training.

"It's up to the services and [Department of Defense] to accept this is a long war and start acting like it," he said. "Start planning for who will be the advisors in late 2006 and 2007, and start training them now."

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