Marines in Southern Iraq Could Head Home in Several Weeks

Among the U.S. troops who captured Baghdad in April and then waited and waited — and are still waiting — for orders to go home, the outlook for a quick exit seems brightest here, home of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (search) and the 1st Marine Division (search).

If all goes as planned, the 18,000 Marines who are working with local Iraqi authorities in seven southern provinces will all be gone within several weeks, officials said Saturday.

The goal is to get thousands of Polish and other international troops here first for a transition that does not let slip the progress the Marines have made in piecing together a new Iraqi police force as a foundation for Iraq's security and rebuilding.

On Saturday night, the 900 Marines of the 2nd Battalion of the 25th Marine Regiment handed over control in Dhi Qar (search) province to a 3,000-soldier Italian brigade under British command. That frees all 900 Marines, reservists from New York City, to go home.

In the Baghdad area and in territory to the west and north of the Iraqi capital, where the U.S. Army is in charge, American soldiers are being killed almost daily. But the Marines in southern Iraq have not lost one to hostile fire since April, Lt. Gen. James Conway (search), commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said in an interview.

The Army has been trying to get its 3rd Infantry Division (search) home, but the increased violence in central Iraq has forced them to put off the return at least twice. Last week, officials said the division's 2nd Brigade would probably go home by Sept. 30 rather than in August, and even that is a target date that could slip if the security situation worsens.

The outlook for the Marines is more straightforward. If international forces are ready to take over their areas of responsibility as expected, all 18,000 Marines could be out of Iraq by Sept. 1, officials said.

Conway cautioned that no return date is guaranteed, but he indicated he is confident that the Marines have taken the right approach to establishing security in their part of Iraq. One key, he said, is interacting continually with regular Iraqis — especially children.

"U.S. Marines have lost a lot of soccer games," he chuckled. "We don't really consider that we truly lost — a lot of goodwill was gained."

Conway's staff gave Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (search) briefings Saturday on the security situation and the fundamentals of their approach to stabilizing southern Iraq.

Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, summed up for Wolfowitz what Conway called "the U.S. Marine Corps way of doing business" with Iraqis.

"No better friend, no worse enemy — it's your choice," he said the Iraqis are told.

Conway told Wolfowitz of one new source of tension between his troops and local Iraqis: the locals' anger that Mohammed Jawad Anayfas escaped U.S. custody. The locals say Anayfas was responsible for mass killings of thousands of their neighbors who opposed Saddam in the early 1990s.

The subject came up when Wolfowitz visited a mass grave estimated by U.S. officials to have held the remains of as many as 15,000 Iraqis. The site is about a mile south of the town of Mahawil, on land that local Iraqis say was owned by Anayfas.

Anayfas was picked up by U.S. military forces on an unrelated charge. About a month ago, while he was being transferred from Baghdad to Um Qasr in southern Iraq, he managed to convince his holders that he was an innocent farmer. Not only was he allowed to leave, he was even given transportation, Conway said.

Wolfowitz, who was not aware of the mistake, was visibly dismayed. Conway assured him the Anayfas would be recaptured and brought to justice for his alleged war crimes.

In a whirlwind tour of Iraq, Wolfowitz also visited U.S. Marines in Karbala, south of Baghdad, and in Najaf, a southern city where hundreds of Iraqis greeted Wolfowitz's motorcade as it toured several neighborhoods. Wolfowitz also stopped briefly to attend an Iraqi town hall meeting, where local leaders told him the United States needs to do more to help Iraq.