RAMADI, Iraq – As the U.S. Marine Corps shrinks its footprint in Iraq's western desert, Arab community leaders are publicly voicing worries about what will happen once the Americans are gone.
They fear a wave of corruption and the return of the insurgency that once held sway over the area.
Marines have been begun divorcing themselves from the task of advising local leaders, the clearest signal that their role in Anbar province is quickly nearing its end.
An Associated Press reporter embedded with the troops witnessed two cases in a single day of Iraqis — a headmistress and a party of businessmen — asking for help and being told the Marines could do very little for them.
"We've always said it's not going to be easy," said Marine Lt. Col. Thad R. Trapp. "They are sure looking over with some anxiety at the separation. There is some anxiety about what the road ahead will look like."
Raheem Kalaaf Mohammed, vice president of the North Ramadi City Council, was more blunt, saying: "We feel there will be a disaster here."
President Barack Obama says he will withdraw combat troops from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010. American commanders are already working on plans to pull out of Iraqi cities by June 30 under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact that also calls for all American forces to be gone by 2012.
The 22,000 Marines in Anbar have already pulled back to the outskirts of Ramadi, Fallujah and other cities in the province. They are wrapping up their involvement in U.S.-funded reconstruction, and are tearing down bases or handing them over to Iraqi control.
Maj. Gen. Richard T. Tryon, commander of Marine operations in Anbar, has ordered the closure or handover of 16 small bases in Ramadi, Fallujah and Karmah since late January. More closures are expected, including in Hit, a town once used as a way station for extremists infiltrating from Syria.
Tryon told The AP in an e-mail that improvements in Iraq's security forces made a "responsible drawdown" possible.
However, Iraqi security chiefs have spoken in recent interviews of their worries that some of the thousands of Iraqis being freed from U.S. custody under the security pact will revitalize the insurgency.
Privately, some Marines share the doubts about the future of Anbar, where tribal and sectarian differences are often dealt with through violence. None would speak publicly because their views go against Marine Corps policy.
Trapp, commander of the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina-based 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, dismissed the concerns, saying: "The end always comes, and it always seems quick when we get there."
Anbar is the largest Iraqi province, stretching from the western gates of Baghdad to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It was a main battleground in the insurgency that broke out soon after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein.
But a U.S.-directed effort in 2006 recruited and funded tribal leaders who fought against al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups.
Violence throughout Iraq has dropped sharply since 2007 and is almost nonexistent in Anbar. In recent weeks, however, there have been a handful of high-profile attacks in Fallujah, targeting primarily Iraqi security forces.
Trapp, 41, said it has been hard for the troops to divorce themselves from helping leaders and security officials to correct mistakes.
"Some of their growth is going to be made with mistakes," he said.
The frustration was evident after the March handover of the Jumiyah base in downtown Ramadi, which the local government quickly reopened as a girls' school to ease classroom overcrowding.
Principal Zanib Ahmed told a Marine lieutenant the school has no electricity, running water or working sewage system. To screen the girls in this conservative Muslim community from the stares of men, she had to build a makeshift wall from rubble and concertina wire.
Marine Lt. Robert Symulski, 25, took her name, nodding in understanding. Later he said it would have been easy to get a handful of Marines to fix the school — but it's not their job.
Ahmed lamented the Marines' withdrawal, saying that without them, "the work may never get done."
Hours earlier, Symulski and Capt. Dallas Shaw, 39, listened to business leaders vent their worries at a North Ramadi council meeting.
The officers were peppered with questions about security measures and allegations that Iraqi security forces were stealing from their stores. They debated hiring their own security force, but Shaw shook his head. He told them they needed to deal with their police precinct commander.
"Very soon, there won't be any Marines coming here," he said.
The remark drew murmurs of dismay.
Kareem Arak, the council president, shook his head, telling Shaw: "We feel many bad things are coming."
Col. Matthew Lopez, commander of Regimental Combat Team 6, said he believed many of the concerns expressed in Ramadi would ebb with the seating of the newly elected provincial government.