HADITHA, Iraq -- The commanding officer of the Hawaii-based 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment headquartered in Haditha met with top Iraqi Police officials and community leaders in a town hall meeting to discuss the future of this Euphrates River city, Jan. 25, 2007.
The meeting was open for any topic of discussion and gave the Haditha community leaders a chance to air concerns and ask questions concerning Iraq’s national government and Haditha’s local security.
Much of the meeting was focused on the local ramifications of President George W. Bush’s new plan for the future of coalition forces throughout Iraq. In the President’s plan, 4000 more Marines will be sent to Al Anbar Province.
“Our troops will have a well defined mission; to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi Forces left behind are capable of providing security,” said the President in a speech from the White House, Jan. 10, 2007.
More than 20 Sheikhs and community leaders attended the meeting and commented on many issues ranging from the President’s new strategy, current vehicular bans inside the city, current and future city construction projects and what their role will be in Iraq’s national government.
“One gentleman stood up and pretty articulately identified the plight of the Sunni Arabs (who make up the vast majority of the population in this region),” said Lt. Col. James Donnellan, 2nd Battalion Commanding Officer.
The gentleman (who asked not to be identified) expressed that the Sunni Arabs are the minority and believe the central government is heavily influenced by Iranian and Shiite specific interests.
“All of this may very well be true, but what we can affect is the security here,” replied Donnellan.
While everyone who attended the meeting agreed the security of Haditha and the “Triad” region was paramount, there were no commitments to help strengthen the local Iraqi Police force, according to Lt. Col. Muhada Mahzir, Haditha Iraqi Police deputy commander.
“They (Sheikhs) say, ‘yes, you are right. We need security and we need police that are from this area’,” said Donnellan. “Then we ask, ‘OK, how many men in your tribe are willing to put forward?’ That’s when the room gets really quiet and everyone starts looking down at their feet.”
While the Haditha police force has seen more than 30 Haditha citizens volunteer for service in the past three weeks, which was seen as a milestone for the police force, there has not been a “large group” to volunteer yet, according to Maj. Eric E. Glassie, Police Training Team officer in charge.
When one Haditha community leader posed the question as to how long Coalition Forces would be in the area, Donnellan replied, “When I’m told the Haditha IP have enough well trained and well equipped IPs, but not a day before.”
Many also asked questions about when the current vehicular restrictions would be lifted. Other than trucks carrying food, water and essential supplies, vehicular traffic has been restricted inside the city for six weeks. Citizens with special circumstances put in a request and are given temporary driving permits.
The restriction was implemented to limit the movement of the local insurgency. Coupled with increased troop levels and a dirt berm surrounding the region, violence has dropped from seven to 10 attacks per day to approximately five per week.
“How long do we need these restrictions to ensure the security of Haditha before your sons and tribe members start joining the IP,” asked Donnellan during the meeting. His question was met with silence.
The issue of local construction projects was also brought up. The Marines of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines and supporting units have been completing small projects since their arrival in this region four months ago, but local contractors have been paralyzed by a murder and intimidation campaign waged by the insurgents against anyone who cooperates with the Coalition, according to Donnellan.
“We’re (Coalition Forces) going to move forward regardless, but when will some of you step forward and make some brave and bold steps forward that will move the city exponentially towards prosperity and peace,” asked Donnellan.
For years the contractors have been intimidated into not working with Coalition Forces, but recently some local business men have expressed that if peace continues to grow in this region they will be more likely to take a risk and begin building city projects such as schools, hospitals and roads.
“We’re on the verge of something very good here,” said Donnellan. “We can bring in more Iraqi Police and Marines and just focus on security, or we can have some brave individuals step forward and help rebuild the city and make some serious progress.”
While there were no commitments from the Sheikhs to support the Iraqi Police or begin rebuilding the city, open dialogue between the community and Coalition is seen as a substantial step in it self, according Mahzir.
“Ninety-five percent of the people in Haditha are supportive of us and what we want for the future of this region,” said Mahzir. “They are the future of Haditha, not the terrorists.”