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The top Marine in Iraq takes stock

General notes Anbar's progress and missteps by the U.S. in the war.

January 23, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

AL ASAD, IRAQ — As he prepares to leave Iraq after a year as the top Marine, Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin is upbeat about the future of Anbar province but candid about U.S. mistakes made in the early years of the war that allowed the insurgency to grow.

U.S. officials created a "perfect storm" after the March 2003 invasion that allowed the insurgency to attract recruits, Gaskin said in interviews here this week. He listed the top three mistakes: disbanding the Iraqi army, banning members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from involvement in government and shutting down state-run enterprises.

"We created that storm that forces of Al Qaeda took full advantage of," Gaskin said.

The result, he said, was a wave of insurgent violence in Anbar, the sprawling province west of Baghdad. The Marines have had major responsibility for the region since 2004 and fought two prolonged battles with insurgents in Ramadi, the provincial capital, in the first year.

Gaskin's comments echoed widespread criticism of the early U.S. policies not only from analysts and politicians but also from some senior military officials. They came as the Marines are in the process of handing off authority in several areas. On Tuesday, responsibility for western Anbar was transferred from the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 2nd Marine Regiment to the Camp Pendleton-based 5th Marine Regiment.

Early next month, Gaskin will return to Camp Lejeune after being relieved by Maj. Gen. John Kelly as commanding general of Multinational Force West. Kelly is commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) from Camp Pendleton.

Once considered the most violent area in Iraq, Anbar now is often cited by President Bush and others as an area where attacks against coalition forces have dropped dramatically.

Gaskin, who commands 35,000 Marines and soldiers, credits the turnaround to an alliance between U.S.-led forces and tribal sheiks who have turned against the insurgency.

"Nothing happens out here without tribal approval," he said. "They were tribal before they were Muslims."

Gaskin said the insurgency was still capable of attacks, particularly using suicide vehicles. But he expressed confidence that the progress made in Anbar was permanent, particularly when backed up by economic projects sponsored by the U.S.

He is effusive in his praise of the sheiks, who were initially shunned by U.S. officials as anachronistic. "They respect and trust us, and we respect and trust them," he said.

The sheiks, particularly those from tribes who led the Anbar Awakening, a volunteer security force, are not reluctant to remind the Americans of their role in suppressing the insurgency and to press their status as valued allies of the U.S.

A week ago, sheiks from the Albu Mahal, one of the first tribes to side with the U.S., asked the Marines to release from jail a police chief suspected of corruption. The chief was released after the sheiks promised to monitor his conduct.

A few days later, sheiks from the Albu Mahal, Al Jugayfi and Albu Nimr tribes asked Gaskin to press the Baghdad government to certify a list of their tribesmen as potential police officers despite their previous links to the insurgency. The Marines promised to do so, with the caveat that they cannot force the Ministry of Interior to do anything.

In exchange for helping the sheiks, Gaskin has stressed to them that the future of Anbar has to include a legal system apart from tribal law, which often includes retribution and blood feuds.

"We have seen enough of violence," said Col. Patrick Malay, commander of the 5th Marine Regiment. "Now is the time to build, for the rule of law."

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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