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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: MARINES GAIN GROUND

Taming the `wild west' of Iraq

January 21, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

HUSAYBAH, IRAQ — It's midday in this farming-and-smuggling town on the Syrian border, and the market square is bustling.

A colorful array of fruits and vegetables and plump fish from both sides of the border is for sale in stalls along the muddy main street. The smell of freshly baked bread permeates the air. The jewelry stores, bridal salon, Internet cafe, pharmacy, and bicycle and butcher shops are crowded with customers. So is the pool hall.

"Business is good," Ahmed Ratib, the town cobbler, said as he nailed new heels on a pair of shoes. "Not like in the past."

Two years ago, the same streets were fraught with roadside bombs and snipers, and sellers and buyers stayed away. The area was considered too dangerous even for a quick tour by a U.S. general in his armored Humvee.

The Qaim region was routinely described, including in The Times, as an out-of-control "wild west" where the Marines were fighting with only limited success to control the smuggling of insurgent fighters and weapons from Syria.

Today, Marines walk the downtown beat, chatting with residents, fielding their complaints, encouraging them to contact the Iraqi police if they suspect insurgent activity.

In a country studded with areas where the U.S. has either failed or made only limited progress toward stabilization, Husaybah and the surrounding Qaim region stand out as a success, officials said.

A State Department counterinsurgency expert, who is based in Iraq, lists Qaim as "very good," Fallouja as "good but backsliding" and Ramadi as "a mess" (a description the commanding officer there disputes).

The effort has combined U.S. military and economic power, backed by help from the municipal and tribal leadership.

In fall 2005, the Marines launched a massive effort to find weapons caches and confront insurgent sanctuaries in this part of Al Anbar province. A follow-up campaign is underway to the northeast of Husaybah, along both sides of the Euphrates River.

The U.S. also has several improvement projects underway, including a 10-lane port of entry from Syria that should provide an economic boost. Marines are assisting the health clinic and hospital, and the U.S. is funding construction of a jobs center and vehicle registration site.

Despite the improvement, problems persist. The port-of-entry project, being built by an American company with Iraqi workers and British security guards, is behind schedule, in part because building materials were hijacked.

Insurgents routinely hijack gasoline trucks coming from Baghdad. A City Council member was recently arrested on suspicion of insurgent activity, and bombers have tried to knock out the telephone system. The mayor needs bodyguards around the clock.

Hundreds of families are said to be coming here to escape Baghdad, which could lead to a struggle for housing and jobs.

"We had better get some tents and be ready," said Capt. Sean Wilson, commander of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Regiment, as he continued walking the beat with his troops.

But Husaybah also has major advantages, including a mayor who refuses to be intimidated and has brokered a deal with local sheiks to get their support in fighting insurgents. The sheiks, whose tribes are spread on both sides of the border, were reluctant; but last fall they committed themselves to the fight.

Calling themselves the Protectors of the Desert, the sheiks have pledged to eliminate insurgents. U.S. officials, to avoid the rise of private militias, have asked that the sheiks instead urge tribesmen to carry on the fight by joining the police force or army. Hundreds of young men have volunteered for the police force and been sent to the police academy in Jordan, at U.S. expense.

"Things were very bad here in the past," said Farhan Farhan, mayor of Husaybah and Qaim. "The tribes and the people decided to fight, along with the Iraqi forces and the Americans. The terrorists only wanted to kill innocent people."

Marines are encouraged to spread the idea that the U.S. is not an occupying power but a transition force, in place until Iraqi security forces are ready to take charge.

"We try to be genuine, to show them we're trying to make things better," said Lance Cpl. Carey Tennison, 26, of San Antonio. "We appreciate that they want to control their own town. They just don't know how to do it yet."

President Bush, in a speech this month, said the Baghdad government had promised to take full responsibility for all provinces by November.

The next day, Col. William Crowe, commander of the Twentynine Palms-based 7th Marine Regiment, told a group of enlisted Marines that within months, the Americans may no longer be required in Qaim.

As they walk their beat, Wilson and his troops ask residents about their problems and what changes they hope to see in Husaybah. Some complain that thieves steal goods from the market stalls at night, and others complain about the paucity of fuel at the government gas station.

When asked about their own actions to help their town, the residents often reply that something will happen, inshallah -- God willing.

Mohammed Ali was out shopping for dinner when Marines stopped to talk. He had a plastic bag of greens and radishes and offered the Marines a taste.

"Do you want the Americans to go home?" the captain asked.

"Someday, but not yet -- too many Ali Babas [thieves] are still here," Ali said.

After more talk of the radishes and the good weather, Ali asked, somewhat tentatively, whether the Marines would be leaving soon.

"Inshallah," the captain answered.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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