BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. Marines got a visit from their top general in the region Saturday but were disappointed when he didn't give them a firm date for their departure from Iraq.
Lt. Gen. James T. Conway told the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, that more than half the 170,000-strong corps was deployed somewhere in the world, so replacing the Marines in Baghdad wouldn't be easy.
Conway praised the battalion for its work, but some Marines sighed and rolled their eyes after he prepared them for a possibly indefinite stay at their base inside a cigarette factory compound in east Baghdad.
"There isn't a firm answer," Conway told a Marine who asked when they would leave Baghdad. "There's a global presence that's required."
Conway's speech came on a day that Marines exchanged gunfire with Iraqis for about 20 minutes in the capital city. Some men protected by sandbagged positions in a house on the opposite side of the Tigris River opened fire on a Marine position near the Palestine Hotel in downtown Baghdad; dozens of Marines from the 3rd Battalion of the 4th Marines returned fire.
Separately, one Marine was shot dead in central Baghdad by a man carrying Syrian identification papers, and four American special forces were wounded when their armored vehicle was strafed by a U.S. jet near Tikrit, 90 miles north of Baghdad.
The Syrian and another man posing as landscape workers walked up to a Marine guarding a clinic and shot him dead, Marines said. Other Marines shot and killed the Syrian while the other man escaped.
The friendly fire incident came as special forces and U.S. attack planes stepped up patrols in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown and the seat of the tribal network that had helped him stay in power more than two decades.
Showing the complications that American forces face in Iraq, Marines from the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion and 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, on Friday night witnessed a gunfight but were moved north, away from it. Iraqi observers told them that some Iraqis were battling fighters from other countries; the Marines were asked to leave the area to avoid becoming involved.
Marines didn't know who was fighting, but they didn't intend to become involved in factional fighting, said Capt. Dan Rose, a forward air observer from Dallas.
Elsewhere, Marines seized the U.N. weapons inspectors' compound in eastern Baghdad. The compound houses documents compiled by the inspectors and computer equipment. Marines will protect it from looters until U.N. officials return.
Also on Saturday, Marines displayed more than 40 "suicide vests," black leather vests stuffed with explosives and ball bearings, that had been found Thursday in an elementary school.
Outside Baghdad, Marine engineers met with small town mayors and farmers and toured back roads, looking for war damage to repair. The Marines of the 7th Engineering Support Battalion, staying at a camp 50 miles southeast of Baghdad, have been scratching to find missions for the past month.
"My Marines are underemployed," said Capt. Andrew Winthrop, head of the battalion's Bravo Company. "And they have been, almost since day one. There simply hasn't been enough work to go around in this war."
There are five Marine engineering battalions in the area, each with about 1,000 Marines. There also are Army engineers and Navy Seabees. But the Iraqis didn't blow up all the bridges, and many roads remain in perfect condition. The airfields were captured and immediately usable. Even the minefields, when they existed, were simplistic.
"It's better to be overprepared than underprepared," said Lt. Col. Scott Poindexter. "But I know it's been frustrating for a lot of Marines."
In his speech, Conway said the 20,000 Marines who were in Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division would be pulled out gradually, but he couldn't say when that would start.
"There are no Marines left back home to replace you, so we're trying to work hard to build something along the lines of the ISAF in Afghanistan," he said, referring to the International Security Assistance Force, the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.
Conway said the U.S. military's priorities were to encourage Iraqis to return to their jobs, establish a government and "get out of town before we're not welcome."
He told a Marine who expressed concern about a possible backlash among Iraqi civilians that they have a tough balancing act as they try to be ambassadors of good will while cracking down on militants, who continue to challenge them.
"It's going to be tough, because there are going to be guys hidden in the woodwork who are going to come get you," Conway said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Matthew Schofield southeast of Baghdad, and Patrick Peterson in Baghdad contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.