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Marines in Karmah have joined the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqi citizens

KARMAH, Iraq — Marine Corps Capt. Quintin Jones certainly didn’t sign up for this when he joined the Corps. His men in Company L, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, likely didn’t enlist to do what they’ve been doing for the past five months either.

But there they were, Jones and a group of his Marines, sitting down last week to dine at the home of a local sheik in this town of 150,000, just north of Fallujah.

Just another day on the job.

It’s been that kind of deployment for the company. They entered a volatile area where attacks were a daily occurrence and local cooperation was almost nonexistent. Now, as their deployment ends in the next month, most days are focused on helping the locals and establishing the infrastructure to clear hurdles that once seemed insurmountable.

“When we first did it, it was so strange,” Cpl. Shea Gooch of Helena, Mont., said between bites of chicken, rice and bread. “That whole culture shock of eating on the floor. But that’s how you get to know people, I guess.”

During his last deployment to this area, Jones said he was in convoys that were hit more than seven times by bombs. So far, Company L has had no combat casualties.

“Understanding the nature of this fight, it’s astonishing how quickly it’s transitioned,” said Jones, of Memphis, Tenn. “None of this stuff I ever trained to do in the Marine Corps.”

Not all areas around Fallujah are so peaceful. Marines continue to hunt fugitives to the east of Karmah and weapons caches are frequently unearthed.

Over the weekend, suicide bombers hit a police station in nearby Ramadi, killing at least five police. The next day, a suicide bombing near Fallujah killed six people and targeted a local sheik who was organizing resistance against al-Qaida and other extremists.

These days in the city, a “three-block war” is being fought, Jones said. The mission is more than enemy pursuit.

“On the other hand, we’re breaking up tribal disputes,” Jones said. “Then I’m at the hospital having a doctor look at a little girl’s burned hand, or talking to the mayor about the economy or a water treatment plant.”

Local kids wave to passing convoys and approach the troops with the “mister mister” method of asking for a soccer ball or chocolate. Jones buys bread each day to give the chow hall at his company’s base a bit of a local flavor.

“We’re trying to create a sense of normalcy,” he said. “We’re not standoffish. We go into the market and buy food.”

The Marines say it’s always a good sign when women are walking around. The women are out in full force these days, stopping at the marketplace that reopened in December. It’s still dirty and dusty by Western standards, but the shops are open and the Marines hope the city is ready to move forward.

The 3rd Battalion has helped funnel more than $1 million in aid to the area.

There’s a functioning city council. A clinic opened and is offering immunizations and seeing hundreds of patients a day, and a maternity ward is in the works.

The area is not without problems. Chief among them is cooperation between the various tribes in the area, and Jones said he spends a lot of time telling the sheiks that they need to keep working together.

Then there’s the harrowing reality that some of the locals working with the Marines this time around were likely the guys who were attacking them in the past.

“I wonder about these guys manning the checkpoints,” Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Rich of Pocono Mountains, Pa., said. “I had to be fighting them in ’05. Were they the ones who killed my friends?”

Many locals didn’t help U.S. forces immediately because of intimidation, according to Iraqi Police Lt. Col. Alawi Ibrahim Theyab, who joined the police at the request of his family.

Theyab said he was kidnapped for 15 days by insurgents who also took his 1993 Opal. They demanded a $30,000 ransom, which his uncle paid.

Theyab is skeptical about how ready local police are and hopes the Marines stay.

“Most [police] are untrained and uncommitted, and could quit at any second,” he said. “But actions speak louder than words. Reconstruction has started. Security has been established and we’re rolling.”


For some Marines, lack of fighting is a letdown

KARMAH, Iraq — Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Lance Dargan joined the infantry to fight. His father served the Corps in Vietnam, and his brother was part of the 2004 Battle of Fallujah.

But during his stint with Company L, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines just north of Fallujah, Dargan and the other Marines haven’t had much chance to flex their training.

The area is one piece of the so-called “Anbar Awakening” that has seen locals siding with the U.S. against al-Qaida extremists. The resulting peace is not necessarily good news to Dargan and his buddies.

“You hear (other Marines) who went through this stuff,” he said. “Then you come here and it’s a big-ass letdown.”

Dargan conceded that most guys probably wouldn’t want to go through combat again after being in the midst of it themselves.

Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Fish is on his third combat deployment tour and said he’s glad that the younger guys haven’t had to fight.

“I get that all the time,” said Fish, of Pocono Mountains, Pa. “I tell them I’ve lost a lot of friends and seen a lot of kids go into bags. They’re trained to fight, but it’s not that time right now. Marines have spilled a lot of blood to get them here right now.”

The company has had no combat-related casualties in this deployment, which is slated to wrap up in the next month.

For now, Dargan and his fellow grunts will have to content themselves with foot patrols and making nice with the locals. Their combat aspirations may have to wait.

“Maybe next time,” Dargan said, noting that the peace in Karmah is not written in stone.

“Just like the Tet Offensive, nothing happened for a whole year,” he said. “They were just observing their enemy.”

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