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Marines getting up to task of nation-building in Iraq

HILLAH, Iraq—The U.S. Marines pride themselves on being the "tip of the spear," the ones who kick down the door and clear the way for others to pick up the pieces. But in Iraq, they have found themselves running two-thirds of the defeated nation.

Decisive battlefield victories have given way to the murkier job of setting up new police departments, getting judges back to work, rebuilding power plants and identifying credible local politicians to run the country.

The size and scope of the task have pushed the Marines into uncharted territory.

"We're not designed to be an army of occupation," said Col. Bill Durrett, who is helping to put together a civil government in southern Iraq. "We're making this up as we go along. In the history of the Marine Corps, I don't think we have ever done this kind of thing. It's wild stuff."

These nation-building tasks were supposed to fall to Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general who heads the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. But Garner has been slow to get his operation up and running, forcing battlefield commanders to fill the vacuum, chase off looters and police the streets.

Baghdad and the surrounding region are under the control of the Army, which is better equipped to handle the occupation, with units devoted to engineering and civil affairs.

The Marines, who are doing the nation-building in southern Iraq, have made some headway in getting water and electricity back in working order. But they're a long way from figuring out who can step in and run the southern region when they leave.

In the southern city of Kut, Marines are keeping a close eye on a tribal leader whom they forced to give up his self-proclaimed post as governor earlier this week. In a smaller town, two soldiers created a near-riot when they met with a politician who local residents said had ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. And Marines are monitoring the self-appointed mayor of Hillah, a local man who some residents say also had ties to the Baath Party.

"We don't know if they're good guys or bad guys," said Col. Alan R. Baldwin, the head of Marine intelligence in southern Iraq. "We're trying to figure out who these players are."

Southern Iraq is the heartland of the country's Shiite Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of the population and who are demanding a role in running postwar Iraq, after being oppressed under Saddam's Sunni Muslim regime. But much of the focus on rebuilding has been on Baghdad, the capital city of 5 million.

That has some American officials worried that the United States isn't paying enough attention to Shiite-dominated southern Iraq. "We continue to see Baghdad as the center of gravity, and I'm not sure that it is," said one senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The challenge the Marines face is complicated by a compressed timeline. The roads filled with smiling children and waving farmers could give way to the steely-eyed glare of Iraqis who view the Marines as little more than heathen invaders.

Some Marines worry that unless the United States gets things on track in the next two to three months, Iraq could end up like Somalia, a humanitarian mission that disintegrated into a bloody morass that left 18 U.S. soldiers dead.

"The danger of that happening is here in front of us every day," Baldwin said.


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