CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq -- First Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) transferred authority of Coalition forces in Al Anbar province, Iraq to II MEF (Fwd) in a ceremony here this morning.
The flag of the Camp Pendleton, California-based I MEF (Fwd) was reverently rolled on its staff and placed in a sleeve by Commanding General Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer, signifying the end of one year as the leader of the Multi-National Force – West. The colors of the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina-based II MEF (Fwd) were then drawn from its sleeve and unfurled by Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin, the II MEF (Fwd) commanding general.
“I’ve been amazed by how much the Marines, soldiers and all the servicemen have been able to accomplish here under such difficult circumstances,” said Zilmer, of Reading, Penn. “What impressed me the most is how well we worked with the Iraqi security forces and how far they’ve come in such a short time.”
During their year as the headquarters element of MNF-W, a force of more than 30,000 servicemen and women from each branch of the services and a small number of foreign military members, I MEF (Fwd) took on the challenging role of rebuilding the Iraqi security forces while increasing the security and stability in the largest Iraqi province.
“My intent was to assist the Iraqis in building the number and capability of their security forces, while bringing down the level of violence to where they, the Iraqis, can provide their own security,” said Zilmer. “As we’ve seen already, a lot of great things can happen here once security is restored. We’ve come a long way since last year.”
When I MEF (Fwd) arrived in Camp Fallujah in February, 2006, the Iraqi Army’s 7th Division had only recently been formed, and the 1st Division’s ranks had been depleted to nearly nothing. Today, both divisions add up to more than 14,000 soldiers, or “jundi”, and have taken the lead in security operations in many largely metropolitan areas of the province, along with the new Iraqi police in those areas.
Two years ago, there were no effective Iraqi police in Al Anbar. Now there are more than 4,000 operating in all of Al Anbar’s largest cities. Many more have joined in recent months and others have joined Emergency Response Units that assist the police.
The integral borders between Iraq and three of its neighbors are now patrolled by approximately 2,700 Iraqis in Border Enforcement. They protect 550 miles of borders as part of a layered defense against the influx of foreign insurgents, terrorists and contraband weapons.
“Combined planning and coordinated execution of operations (between the Iraqi Army and police) are becoming the norm, vice the exception as it might have been a year or two ago,” said Lt. Col. Clayton J. Fisher, the senior advisor on the Military Transition Team that works with the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Brigade, 1st Division. “Additionally the Iraqis are seeking to take the reins and drive operations, with coalition forces assuming an ‘over-watch’ role, assisting and supporting as needed.”
Of the 55 planned new police stations to be added to the 38 active stations now in the province, the Iraqis plan to name one of them in the Ramadi area Al Wissam, or “the Warrior” Police Station, and dedicate it to the late U.S. Army Captain Travis Patriquin.
Patriquin was killed in action while serving with 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division in Ramadi. He was one of the many Soldiers and Marines who worked with both the tribal leadership and provincial government in Ramadi to bring about positive change in Al Anbar.
In the last year, the provincial capitol has seen a significant drop in violence due largely to the steady increase in volunteers to the various Iraqi security forces. The provincial government has also worked hard to bring more than $170 million in much needed reconstruction funds into the province.
According to Col. Charles R. Gross, the civil affairs liaison to the Anbar governor, said the last year was very difficult for the provincial government, yet “both the Governor and the Provincial Council persevered in their commitment to bringing security, stability, economic development, and the rule of law to Anbar Province.”
Gross, with the 4th Civil Affairs Group from the Naval District Washington, Washington, D.C., added the relationship between I MEF (Fwd) and the provincial government was very close and will continue to be mutually beneficial with the change in leadership to II MEF (Fwd).