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U.S. Marines headed for Iraq to put more `boots on the ground'

WASHINGTON—Marines deploying to Iraq in coming weeks will emphasize interacting with local people and gaining their trust in an effort to quell an increasingly violent and sophisticated anti-coalition insurgency in the western part of the country, the Marine Corps commandant said Wednesday.

The 25,000 Marines, who are from all three Marine Expeditionary Forces, will relieve paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division, based in Fort Bragg, N.C. The Marines are infantrymen, and their arrival will mean more troops walking troubled territory and interacting with Iraqis.

The Marines will have their work cut out for them in towns such as Fallujah, west of Baghdad, where a bold daylight raid by guerrillas last Saturday left at least 20 Iraqi policemen dead and freed dozens of prisoners.

Gen. Michael Hagee said the Marines would arrive in Iraq well prepared, drawing on lessons and training scenarios learned from the departing paratroopers and the Marine Corps' own extensive experience with fighting "small wars."

"We know how to fight, and we are prepared to do that," Hagee, the Marines' top commander, said during a breakfast with reporters. "But this is a security and stability operation, and we have to establish relationships with the people there. That's where the intelligence is going to come from."

Fallujah, a city of about 300,000, lies 35 miles west of Baghdad in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, where resistance against the U.S.-led coalition has been strongest. In Fallujah, and in towns such as Khaldiyah and Ramadi, farther west, attacks on American convoys by guerrillas with rocket-propelled grenades and remote-controlled bombs occur almost daily and often are fatal.

Hagee credited the 82nd Airborne task force, composed of paratroopers and armored soldiers, with significant progress in developing local sources of intelligence, which he said was decreasing the number of attacks.

One lesson the Marines have learned from the 82nd Airborne's paratroopers is that the best way of preventing attacks with remote-controlled bombs is to have a lot of infantry on the ground who can watch for them.

"One of the things we bring is boots on the ground," Hagee said. "Because of what we do—we are a light-infantry, expeditionary force—our battalions are fairly robust, and they are infantrymen."

Since the war began last March, 543 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq. Many of those deaths were due to attacks on convoys with remote-controlled bombs fashioned from artillery shells and other munitions.

Hagee said the bombs remained a top concern of senior American military leaders and that task forces had been set up stateside and in Iraq to develop new tactics and technologies to detect and defeat the roadside killers.

"I don't think there's a higher-priority issue," he said.

The Marines are deploying as part of a plan to replace 120,000 soldiers in Iraq over the next few months with 105,000 new troops as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to hand over power to a transitional Iraqi government by July 1. Many of the soldiers in Iraq have been there nearly a year.

Once they arrive, senior Marines will accompany their Army counterparts on patrol for several days so that established relationships with Iraqis continue and the transition from one force to another goes as smoothly as possible.

In a departure from the Army's approach, Hagee suggested that some Marines will live among the Iraqi security forces they are training, a tactic that worked with a degree of success in Vietnam.

Because of the danger from remote-controlled bombs, American forces in Iraq are rushing to add extra armor to their Humvees, trucks and other "soft-skinned" vehicles. Hagee said the Marines planned to use about 3,600 vehicles in Iraq, all of which would have the extra armor when they deployed. The Army will leave some of those vehicles behind; others will have the plates added in the United States or Kuwait.

Hagee said the Marine Corps' helicopter pilots would undergo a special two-week course to learn how to avoid surface-to-air missiles. He said the Marines also were installing special equipment on helicopters bound for Iraq to help pilots evade the threat. Since October, insurgents have shot down several helicopters in Iraq, mainly by using Soviet-era SA-7 surface-to-air missiles and their variants.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Hagee

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