Col. John Coleman, 1st MEF chief of staff

Col. John Coleman, 1st MEF chief of staff (Michael Abrams / S&S)

BABYLON, Iraq — When 1st Marine Expeditionary Force troops planted their flag near King Nebuchadnezzar’s ancient ruined palace in Babylon, they knew their job there would change. Once they found better living quarters, they set out to rebuild and patrol a war-torn nation.

“We said our troops are living in the dirt, so we started looking for masonry structures with high ceilings. This answered our mail,” said the 1st MEF’s chief of staff, Col. John Coleman.

The Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based 1st MEF, which arrived in Babylon on April 21, now controls the lower half of Iraq, roughly 500 square miles of territory where 7 million people live.

Since major combat ended, half of the Marines who fought the war have gone home, leaving 31,000 in Iraq, MEF spokesman Capt. David Romney said. When coalition forces from several European countries arrive later this summer, more Marines will leave.

The 1st MEF has 60 projects in the region, such as building schools, restoring electricity and training Iraqi police, Romney said.

Some 4,800 Navy Seabees are rebuilding the infrastructure as the 1st MEF helps shore up key elements of a civil society, Coleman said.

In the meantime, the Marinesare working to clean out pockets of anti-American resistance.

“We’ve got a lot of stuff to do after a fairly short and intense combat operation,” Coleman said. “We’ve got to keep things stable until this honeymoon period, as I call it, is over.”

Unlike Baghdad, where five soldiers died last week under hostile-fire, the last Marine to die in a hostile act was on April 12, Coleman said.

“That’s not to say we’re not getting shot at all the time,” he said.

Coleman calls the resistance an “unconventional threat” from former Baathists and radical religious fundamentalists. He said Marines are running combat operations day and night.

“We are on the hunt every day,” Coleman said.

That work goes hand in hand with other duties, such as delivering and guarding gasoline and cooking gas. Without those basic services, Coleman said, the area could flare up again.

“Things could get out of hand fast,” he said.

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