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Maintaining post-war order is daunting assignment

MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—Marines assigned to help govern post-war Iraq may first have to hunt down the remnants of resistance forces already reported to be returning quietly to some "secured" towns in the south, sniping at allied troops and threatening civilians who cooperate with them.

"The residual paramilitary threat could be greater than we anticipated," Marine Lt. Col. George Smith said Thursday. "But we're not going to allow them to interfere."

The U.S. post-war plan assigned the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, with 60,000 Leathernecks and 25,000 British troops, the job of ruling southern Iraq, with 9.3 million civilians spread over 103,000 square miles.

To help keep the peace, attack helicopters will be stationed no more than 70 miles from any point in the region, said Smith, who since January has been planning the Marines' new role.

The Army V Corps is expected to run northern Iraq. And the allies' ground command, the Combined Forces Land Component Command, will be responsible for Baghdad and its 5 million people.

It will be a daunting task for all, but one especially tough for the Marines and British troops, whose turf saw some of the most fanatical resistance.

"We kick in the door—we're not designed to be a long-term force," Smith said. "But we have the flexibility to do it."

The British will have to keep an especially sharp eye on neighboring Iran from their eastern sector of the region, where radical Shiia Muslims already have been spotted infiltrating the predominantly Shiia town of Amara.

But the coalition's main and hardest job will be to enable the U.S. Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), international agencies and the Iraqis themselves to rebuild the country and set up stable governments.

Members of Saddam's Baath Party will be allowed to retain their government jobs, except for Washington's short "black list" and the much longer "gray list," Smith said, to assure continuity.

Regimental, command-level coalition officers will be in charge in the south, with staffers responsible for power, water, intelligence, roads, police and medical and veterinary systems.

"We need to see what structure remains so we can use that and build on it," Smith said.

ORHA, created in January and headed by retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, will deploy teams of civilian experts focused on infrastructure recovery, humanitarian assistance and governance.

"We've got the bodies. We've got the energy. ORHA brings specific expertise and money," Smith said. The ORHA teams technically will be under military command, he said, although the relationship is expected to be one of mutual cooperation.

Marines expect the key flash points in their region to be the Shiia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in the north and Basra and Nasiriyah in the south. All are cities crisscrossed by tribal allegiances.

They will let Shiia religious authorities in each town take the lead in deciding the assistance they need. Local contractors will be hired so that the assistance money stays in the region, Smith said.

Marine and British troops already have started some of their post-hostility duties in the southern parts of the region first occupied in their advance north from Kuwait.

British troops this week launched TV and radio stations in Basra to inform its 1.3 million people, opened a gasoline station and met with a tribal "paramount sheikh" in hopes of starting to organize a new government.

Marines sent medical missions to Nasiriyah, delivered supplies to the local Saddam Hospital and were helping the local banks to reopen so the city's 750,000 people would have money to buy supplies.

War damage to infrastructure such as bridges and electricity systems was less than expected, the predicted flood of refugees never materialized and food supplies seem relatively adequate for the moment.

But Smith acknowledged that the job still would be difficult.

"We're the nation's assault force," Smith said of his Marines. "It's a new set of challenges and it's going to require the best of the Marines. That said, we're going to stay and get the job done."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.