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Marine Force Commander Details Progress in Iraq

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 30, 2003 – The Marines based south of Baghdad made the transition from warfighting to peacekeeping with their usual aplomb, said Marine Lt. Gen. James Conway during a video press conference today from Iraq.

"Our Marines were extremely innovative and adaptive during the campaign, and they've carried those characteristics into the aftermath," Conway told the Pentagon press corps. "Our current mission is to provide a safe and secure environment in order to eventually be able to turn Iraq back over to the Iraqis."

The general, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said his Marines are going about the job in a no-nonsense manner. "What we tell the Iraqis is that 'we're here to do a job don't get in our way, and nobody will get hurt; indeed, you will like the results,'" he said. "'Interfere with our efforts or threaten our forces in any way, and there will be consequences.'"

The 1st MEF has had success in dealing with the local populations. "Thus far, we are pleased to say that the people of southern Iraq have generally welcomed our presence in the cities and in the countryside, he said.

Since the Marines left Baghdad in April, there have been no "significant incidents that have resulted in a Marine or sailor being seriously wounded or killed." The unit is working with nongovernmental organizations, Army civil affairs teams and troops from other nations to "re-create" the quality of life in southern Iraq.

Conway said that the success is in part due to the reputation the Marine Corps has around the world, but other factors are more important. Part of this is the Marine ground forces have more infantrymen than comparable Army units. This allows a larger presence, he said.

"But I think we're also fortunate in that the south of Iraq has a much larger Shia population," he said. Saddam Hussein murdered thousands of Shia following the Persian Gulf War, and maintained an iron grip on the region. "There are not as many Baathists, I think, remaining in the south as perhaps there are in the north, (and) a lesser number of Sunnis, who were sympathetic to the regime," he said.

At the beginning of the ground war, the 1st MEF consisted of 85,000 U.S. Marines and the British 1st Armored Division which also included British Marines. He said there are about 41,000 U.S. Marines in Iraq and Kuwait today.

Conway said he believes the security situation in Iraq is improving. The spate of attacks in northern Iraq does not concern him.

"I think what we're seeing are a limited numbers of attacks that are, I think, in some cases being mischaracterized as how the whole nation is seeing our presence," he said. "I really don't think that there's anarchy in Iraq, to include northern Iraq. But there are specific individuals that are very aware of the fact that even a small-scale attack makes large-scale news."

The U.S. military, he said, needs to continue doing what it is doing building the Iraqi police forces, providing point security on key infrastructure, rehabilitating basic infrastructure.

"Just seven to 10 weeks ago, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was accomplishing feats in combat never envisioned for a force whose origins were from the sea," Conway said. The unit attacked more than 600 miles from the nearest beach. Marine Corps aviation units provided close-air support and also participated in the overall air campaign.

Conway said that columns of slashed through and around Iraqi defenses. He said the U.S. Central Command leadership took a calculated risk to push the Marines forward as far and as fast as they did, he said. The rubber band was stretched, but it never broke. Marine support troops made 22-hour trips to supply the materiel of war.

"The war now is essentially over," Conway said. Marine aviators are now flying Iraqi children injured in automobile accidents to treatment centers. Tanks are parked, and ground troops are engaged in building police forces and repairing schoolhouses. "Our support troops are clearing unexploded ordnance, providing Iraqi farmers with diesel fuel and rebuilding bridges destroyed during the fighting," he said.

"We recently took pride in our ability to rapidly topple the regime of a vicious dictator," he continued. "Today we take pride in our ability to offer a bright and prosperous future to the children of Iraq."

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