Wild, Wild West

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Video: Baghdadi's Finest

May 8, 2006

The Al Anbar province in western Iraq is a vast, sparsely populated area that stretches from the Euphrates River Valley to the Syrian border. Agriculture is the number one economy, and water is the most important resource. It's 30,000 square miles of desert, dotted by farmland, with numerous small cities and towns, some of them 3000 years old.

"Wide open spaces to tight confined places," is how Colonel Blake Crowe describes it. There are good people in Al Anbar, but there's also a thriving criminal element.

"This is the wild, wild west out here,” he told me. Crowe is Regimental Commander of the 7th Marines out of 29 Palms, California. He's a rugged full bird colonel with a hard charging demeanor and serious commitment to the task at hand.

He gave me and my crew a no-nonsense briefing when we arrived at Camp Ripper, a base within a base at the Al Asad airfield.

Al Anbar is Sunni territory. There's no sectarian violence, but a serious threat from local insurgents and outside terrorists, who often work with Al Qaeda to coordinate attacks against coalition forces.

"There's 50 to 60% unemployment in the Euphrates River area," the colonel told me, contributing to a "huge" criminal element. The illiteracy rate is high. It's traditionally been a "forgotten" part of the country, so the people here don't pay much attention to what happens in Baghdad or Ramadi. They're suspicious of outsiders and get their news by word of mouth, so rumors run rampant. And there's a long-time smuggling network that's helping to sneak foreign fighters across the border and into safe houses where they can organize and plan strikes against convoys and bases.

The Marines know the smuggler's preferred routes, and there are operations underway to shut them down.

Like much of Iraq, Al Anbar has a strong tribal system led by sheiks that have great sway over their people. They're the real "power players," often telling the local politicians what to do. What the Sheik says goes, so the coalition has been working with them, trying to increase cooperation, especially in regard to outing bad guys hiding in their midst, and convincing young men to sign up for the Iraqi army.

"These guys are fiercely independent and don't want anyone telling them what to do." However, the colonel says, "If someone does something dishonorable, they deal with that person.” He recognizes there is no way to work around the tribes. The only way to succeed is to work with them.

As for the threats, Crowe says most insurgents know better than to engage our troops. They're outgunned, outclassed, and incapable of winning a firefight, so they plant roadside bombs instead.

There is a lesser threat from car bombs, but the threat does exist. The drivers are typically very young, usually 15- or 16-years-old, often from Saudi Arabia. Very few homicide bombers are Iraqis.

The colonel says his team measures success in different ways. They face difficult challenges in improving the quality of life and training the Iraqi security forces, but see progress. There's more and better local governance. They're working on improving economic security (one example: helping a bank open in the town of Haditha) and strengthening the power grid. People are building homes, with air conditioning and satellite dishes. And they're starting to talk to the Iraqi soldiers who are taking the lead in more missions.

When I last saw the colonel, he was hosting a barbecue for some high-ranking Marines and Iraqi army officers, including an Iraqi general. They were gathered under camouflage netting behind the HQ building, eating steaks and drinking soda or near beer, followed by tea and cigars.

They swapped stories and jokes. They spoke in English and Arabic. Sometimes translators were necessary, sometimes not. Bonds are forming. The camraderie is there, and the confidence among both groups appears strong.

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Mr. Leventhal,

What do these folks need?? I am retired Navy, but, don't know what they really need. Please advise.

Roger


Dear Rick,

Thank you for your report on our brave Marines. Our son-in-law is stationed there and works with Col. Shaban. Continue your reporting; we at home need to know what is going on. I watch as many new clips as I can in hope just to see a glimpse of my son-in-law. May God protect you and your news team for the important and vital job you do, and may God protect our men and women for the highest service that they do.

God Bless America.
Cheryl K.
Georgia


Rick,

I just saw your report titled "Training Day" this morning. My brother is with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, Kilo Company. We have begun hearing from him (letters, occasional phone calls) and his reports have been upbeat.

Information is important to us back here in the States and any feedback you could provide us would be FANTASTIC! Not trying to kiss up, but yourself and a couple of your colleagues are far and away the BEST correspondents reporting on these stories (coverage 3 years ago was the best out there). Coming from a military family we appreciate the positive stories that you report (especially when it involves my brother's unit). Living here in the NY suburbs it especially hits home when considering 9/11. My two sons (7&5) have friends who lost family members that day at the Trade Center. They have personally thanked us for my brother's service!

Mike


Rick:

-- Thank you for your attention to, respect for, and support of the Marines in Iraq. On Dec. 24th, 1969, when I was a (civilian) kid in Danang, Vietnam, a Marine risked his life to save mine in an ambush on the road to "Red Beach." I never learned the man's name, but I've been thanking Marines ever since. I'm delighted to read in your reports that they are still "semper fidelis,"
and for that I am grateful.

Jeff
Colorado Springs


Rick,

Great article on the "Leathernecks" of 3/3, and very pleased to see you capture a better picture of the "truth on the ground" than what we usually see through many other news services. Keep it up and hang tough. Semper Fi ! Pass along to David Asman my well wishes to his boy, if he's still serving Country & Corps.

LtCol "O"
USMCR (Ret)


Hey, Rick:

Thanks for the great video of Baghdadi. My son is with USMC 3/14 and spends much of his time with "Chief" as he calls the Colonel. In my son's own words: "He is truly dedicated to what he does and you can't help but have a great deal of respect for him. He is a diamond in the rough here and wants to see a new, safer Iraq. I think that I also need to mention that he currently works for no money, no pay. "

We've received some great pictures of the police force with their new equipment and we've heard great stories with local flavor. My son's in-laws happened to catch your story on TV and I was lucky enough to pull it up on the internet. Now all of our family and friends can share it. Thanks again.

Lynn and Jim, Pottsville, PA


Rick,

Thanks for your article 'The Most Rewarding Job' as my son is a Marine with the 3/3, Kilo Company, 2nd Platoon and is there now. He is one of three in our family that has served or is serving today. We're beginning a tradition in the family.

Hope you stay well and if you are ever in the neighborhood you are welcome in our home. If you see Mike in your travels call him "lunchbox." He'll know you heard from his dad.

John M "Mike" Jones USAF retired
Flagstaff, AZ

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