Marines Prop Up Ailing Local Gov't in Iraq

The Associated Press
Sunday, July 30, 2006; 3:42 PM

RAMADI, Iraq -- Peering over piles of sandbags in this ravaged city, U.S. Marines sometimes see more gunmen on the streets than municipal employees going to work.

The provincial governor regularly arrives at his office with armed guards in tow. Young Marines notice few others on his staff trail behind.

After three years of war in Ramadi, the U.S. military has yet to move from combat to stabilization operations in most of this Sunni Arab city of 400,000 people, the capital of Anbar province.

Here full-fledged combat still rages. Efforts to build a local government have faltered.

In just four months, one Marine has fired 27 rockets. Another estimates he's fired 5,000 rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun. One marksman has 20 confirmed kills. His superiors believe he's probably killed another 40 but they aren't sure.

The U.S. military said Sunday that four U.S. Marines assigned to the Regimental Combat Team 7 were killed in action in Anbar province, although it did not say where.

Residents of Ramadi are afraid of even walking near the offices of the Anbar provincial government, which is supposed to administer an area the size of North Carolina, and with about one million inhabitants.

"There's been a concerted campaign against government officials that's had some great success ... the government center is nearly devoid of governance," said the top Marine intelligence officer for the 3rd Battalion, 8th Regiment, who asked not to be identified because of security policies for intelligence officers.

Earlier this year, policemen were stationed in a rebuilt station within the compound _ but daily attacks scared them away. Now the freshly painted police station is empty, surrounded by police cars with tires flattened by mortar shrapnel. Iraqi soldiers were also relocated to safer parts of the city, leaving the government's defense again in the hands of Marines.

"The only way this thing is going to get normal is if Iraqis stand up for themselves," said Sgt. John Strobridge, 21, of Orlando, Fla., as he walked through the empty police station. Pointing to the damaged police vehicles, he observed, "As you can see, they didn't last long."

In recent weeks the U.S. military has tried to remove neighborhoods from insurgent control, building new outposts deeper into the city to extend the reach of its patrols. Marines are also trying to expand the so-called "Green Zone" of the city, a calmer western neighborhood of about 25,000 people near a cluster of U.S. bases.

But in the heart of the city, the war is unabated.

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