HADITHA, Iraq -- “I need kerosene.”
“Do you have any information about my son who was detained yesterday?”
"Can you fix the damage that was done to my house when Marines were fighting ali-baba (what locals call insurgents)?”
Citizens from this western Al Anbar city come to the Marines of the Virginia-based 4th Civil Affairs Group seeking answers for their many questions. Whether the CAG Marines were able to accommodate all the requests or not, they have built a strong rapport with the local population in the four months since their arrival through their tireless effort to help, according to Capt. William Parker, the CAG team leader.
The CAG acts as a link between the local Iraqi population and the infantry Marines of the Hawaii-based 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, who have been securing the Haditha “Triad” region since September 2006. The “Triad” region is home to 50,000 and consists of the cities of Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwanah, which all sit on the banks of the Euphrates River.
While the Marines of 2nd Battalion hunt down insurgents, search for weapons caches and patrol the streets of these Euphrates River cities, the CAG Marines are busy building the foundation of a strong community, according to Parker, a 36-year-old from Boston.
“Traditionally the CAG mission focuses on projects – building schools, hospitals and other infrastructure facilities,” said Parker. “The reasoning behind this is that these projects are built by local contractors, so you’re putting money back into the community and providing jobs.”
However, many local contractors are currently reluctant to work with the Coalition on building projects due to threats from the local insurgency. Undeterred by the insurgents’ murder and intimidation campaign, the CAG Marines here have tailored their operation to slowly build community support and involvement.
“Right now we’re doing smaller things on a more personal level,” said Parker. “We’re understanding who these people are, what their belief systems are, what their feelings towards the Coalition and insurgents are, what their goals are, and what they would like to see happen here.”
When Parker and his team of 12 Marines arrived in the triad in September 2006, the local population had minimal contact with the CAG Marines. In their first couple weeks operating in the triad, they would be lucky to have five local Iraqi’s come into the Civil Military Operations Center, the hub for all CAGs business, according to Master Gunnery Sgt. Salvatore Rignola, the CAG’s senior enlisted advisor.
There was even talk of shutting down the CMOC because it was thought to be ineffective, said Parker. Instead, the CAG Marines began going on patrols with Marines from 2nd Battalion in an effort to talk to as many locals as possible and spread the word about what the CAG could do for them and their community.
“On the patrols the CAG mission never stopped,” said Parker. “It didn’t matter if there was a firefight going on outside, we kept talking to the people. The people saw that we were making a huge effort to reach out to the community and see what they were concerned about or what they needed.”
The word spread around to the entire triad that if any one had an issue concerning the Coalition or their own community, they should go to the CMOC and talk to the CAG Marines.
“When we first got here, the people of Haditha wouldn’t even talk to an American much less be seen going to the CMOC because they feared the insurgents would kill them,” said Rignola, a 46-year-old from New York City. “Now the CMOC is packed everyday.”
Whether they’re looking for a condolence payment, vehicle permit, information on the status of a detainee, money to repair damages caused by Marines or simply to ask a question, the locals who come to the CMOC are looking for answers in some form.
“We’re not always able to give them what they’re looking for,” said Parker. “But in this culture, as long as they see that you’re making a strong effort they feel like they’re being taken care of.”
Apparently the word has traveled around the entire triad that when you go to the CMOC “you can get something done”, said Parker. People walk for miles from neighboring cities just to get to the CMOC and speak with the CAG Marines
The amount of triad residents who come to the CMOC to speak with the Marines has ballooned from five per week four months ago to an average of more than 60 people per day.
A line of people waiting to talk with a CAG Marine spills out the door of the CMOC nearly everyday. Some local citizens come to the CMOC on such a regular basis that they’re on a first name basis with Rignola, who considers many of the Iraqis he’s met here his friends.
“If they remember a Marine treating them good, they’ll keep that in the back of their mind for the rest of their lives,” said Rignolla, a reserve Marine who works for the New York City Fire Department investigating arsons and explosions when not activated.
“No matter what someone tells them later on in life, they’ll know that the Marines were good to them. It just comes down to treating people as you would like to be treated,” added Rignola.