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The Nation

Marines in Iraq may shift to Afghanistan

Commanders study the plan as the mission in Anbar winds down.

October 11, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Marine Corps generals have told high-level civilian and military officials that as the Marines' mission in the once-violent Anbar province in Iraq winds down, the corps is ready -- even eager -- to redeploy combat troops to Afghanistan where fighting has increased, officials said Wednesday.

Such a shift could allow the Army units in Afghanistan to either be bolstered by the Marines or deployed to Iraq.

The suggestion to redeploy Marines to Afghanistan is being studied by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command; Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq; and Army Gen. Daniel K. McNeill, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

"If they want us, we're there," said one Marine leader, who asked not to be identified because no decision has been made.

While the idea is being considered at the Pentagon and the commands in Baghdad and Afghanistan, it is not likely to change the plans of Marines from Camp Pendleton set to deploy to Iraq in the next three months, military officials said.

Those troops are in the final phase of intensive training at Camp Pendleton and the "Mojave Viper" training course at Twentynine Palms.

Some 11,000 troops from two regiments and a headquarters battalion are set to return to Iraq as responsibility for Anbar shifts from the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force to the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

The Marines would need some lead time to shift training emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan but that could probably be accomplished by early next year, officials said.

Marines from Camp Pendleton were the first conventional troops sent to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and served as a blocking force to help Afghan loyalists rout the Taliban.

Marines were boarding helicopters to search the caves at Tora Bora to kill or capture Osama bin Laden until Pentagon officials decided it was best to let Afghan forces take the lead -- a decision that many blame for Bin Laden's escape.

There are only a handful of Marines among the 25,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan.

After helping topple Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, the Marines were then sent back to wrest control of Anbar province from Hussein loyalists. Until the Sunni insurgency spread to Baghdad, Anbar, the sprawling region from Baghdad to the Syrian border, was the most violent area of Iraq.

The Marines fought major battles in Fallouja, Ramadi, Qaim and Haditha and other, lesser-known spots. But in the last year, fighting has waned in much of Anbar. Sunni tribal sheiks have formed an alliance with the Marines and Army units. Recruitment among local men for the Iraqi police force has increased. As Iraqi forces have taken more responsibility in Anbar, U.S. casualties have dropped.

On Monday, the 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment returned to Camp Pendleton with a record that just a few months earlier would have been thought impossible: Not a single Marine was killed during the battalion's seven-month deployment. In a previous deployment the Two-Five had 15 dead, more than 200 wounded.

An officer from another Marine group, in an e-mail sent Wednesday from Iraq, said the progress in the province had been "truly spectacular."

A year ago, Lt. Col. Beau Higgins e-mailed to friends, the province was seeing 50 attacks a day. The figure is now about 10, he said, and his Marines are heading home.

"While the violence out here may not be at zero, it clearly is at a level that can be managed by the Iraqis with minimal help from Coalition Forces," Higgins wrote. "It's critical that we stay here to continue to assist. . . but our role as fire fighters in the zone moving from hot spot to hot spot has truly gone."

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, fighting has increased, with Taliban fighters becoming bolder with ambushes and roadside bombs. Attacks have moved from outlying provinces to areas closer to the capital of Kabul.

Military planners say the U.S.-North Atlantic Treaty Organization strategy in Afghanistan suits the Marine Corps style -- frontline companies living with local forces, providing backup and mentoring.

"It's our kind of fight," said one Marine.

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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