Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Field Trip to Anbar

Last week I took a little field trip to al Anbar province, strap hanging on a visit by two staffers from the Senate Appropriations Committee who were visiting Iraq. Why go to Anbar, the heart of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, you ask? With apologies to Sir Edmund Hilary, because its there, essentially. I wanted to see a side of the war not readily apparent from my comfortable perch here in the International Zone.

As it turned out, we received a sad reminder of the cost of this conflict right away. In the middle of the C-130 we took from BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) to al Asad Airbase sat a flag draped coffin. I tried my best not to think about the soldier or Marine lying inside, about the family or small town waiting for him back in the states, or about my friend who unfortunately made the same journey. There will be time for that reckoning later, I guess.

Al Asad is situated along the Euphrates River, even farther west than insurgent hotbeds such as Hit, Ramadi, and Fallujah. The airbase is literally in the middle of the desert. Unlike the Green Zone, with its ample supply of palm trees, there are no trees, no desert shrubs to be seen anywhere at Al Asad. Once we'd landed, we were driven to Warrior Hall for lunch. Warrior Hall had only opened a week before, but is now the largest mess hall in all of CENTCOM, capable of seating 7,000 personnel. Cavernous is quite simply the only word to describe it. (Unfortunately, the food was not much better than it was here in Baghdad).

After lunch we were given a tour of the base by the commander of the Marine Air Wing, a full bird Marine colonel. We are shown their state-of-the-art operations center, their UAV operations center, and an F-18 fully loaded for combat, all seemingly ripped from the pages of Bruce Berkowitz's The New Way of War.

After the tour, we boarded helicopters for a brief hop to visit RCT-7's compound near Baghdadi. In the blink of an eye the barren desert landscape of brown sand and wadis transformed into lush, dark green palm groves hugging the Euphrates. We flew over a town filled with orderly rows of modern, two-story homes with walled courtyards and a new satellite dish atop each house. We are later told this used to be a military housing complex under Saddam Hussein.

We are briefed by the Marines in a 15'x30' building with plywood walls and ceiling. Given the bottles of A-1 steak sauce and Aunt Jemima syrup sitting before us on the folding tables, it is clear that this building also doubles as their dining facility. It looks as if it can about forty people maximum, and seems a world apart from spacious Warrior Hall.

COL Crowe and his staff brief us on the Marines' operations in the Western Euphrates River Valley, or WERV, an area the sized of South Carolina. While I can't go into the specifics of their briefing, it was clear that they understood this fight in terms of counterinsurgency theory. In his remarks, COL Crowe frequently made reference to civil affairs, agriculture, and irrigation projects he would like to pursue if has the time and money to see them through.

The Marines' presentation was followed by a briefing from Colonel Shaban, the local Iraqi police commander. Although he was living in Baghdad at the time, Shaban was chosen by his tribe to head the local police. Since assuming command, COL Shaban has lost his brother to a VBIED (car bomb) that was intended for him. He says that he doesn't want his brother to have died in vain. "Iraqis are good people," he says, "but they are plagued by the terrorists, the Ba'athists, and the Wahabbis."

Shaban believes that together with the Marines, they have destroyed more than 85 per cent of the terrorists. One of the staffers asks COL Shaban how long the Marines should stay in Iraq. He says that although he wants them to be back with their families, without them there would be a civil war, and he wants twice as many Marines.

Back at Al Asad, we are given a quick tour of the Marines headquarters. Outside COL Crowe's office stands a memorial to the Regiment's fallen: a rifle with bayonet point down between a beat up pair of combat boots, with a Marine helmet perched on the rifle butt. From the rifle grip hung more than a hundred dog tags, collected from Marines killed in action from OIF to the present.

Again, this was a touching reminder of the cost of what we are doing here. But given the Marines' obvious devotion to their mission and to COL Shaban and his men, it seems to be a sacrifice they made willingly.

I came away from the trip with a greater appreciation for the difficulties of reconstructing a country and a society so thoroughly ravaged over the past 30 years, and of the courage and dedication of the American and Iraqi officers fighting the terrorists and fascists in the Anbar province.