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Only Iraqi forces can eliminate `thugs,' U.S. commander says

WASHINGTON—The stubborn insurgency in western Iraq can be brought "to an acceptable level," but that effort is going to depend on building Iraqi security forces and gaining the confidence of the people in the region, a top Marine Corps general said Tuesday.

Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said he couldn't estimate the level of support that insurgents have in Sunni-dominated al Anbar province, where U.S. troops are frequently attacked. But he suggested that the insurgency wouldn't subside until the "thugs and intimidators" behind it were eliminated from the local populace, which only Iraqi forces can accomplish.

"It goes back to Elliott Ness and the Untouchables," he said, referring to the famous crime buster who brought gangster Al Capone to heel in Depression-era Chicago. "We had to break the spirit and break the back of the mobs. You come in and blow up one business and intimidate a hundred. And we're seeing that's about what's going on out there right now. They're just thugs and intimidators, and until we can quell that, the rest of the town is not going to jump up and start pointing them out."

About 23,000 troops from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force will take over operations from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in western Iraq beginning in January. Many of them fought in the fierce battles for the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah last January.

But during this upcoming seven-month deployment, the Marines will have a different focus—training Iraqi forces to take on those battles themselves.

"The capability and capacity to do that is going to be critical as a turning point" before U.S. forces can return home, Sattler said. "But I cannot predict how well or how fast we'll be able to bring this capability on line."

Sattler said the Marines plan to train 18 Iraqi battalions—about 800 men each—with the goal of eventually handing over parts of western Iraq to them.

But it's unclear how long that process will take because Iraqi units face numerous issues with the quality of their leadership, lack heavy weapons and rely on Americans for supplies and other logistical support.

The formation of Iraqi units also is hampered by local support in Anbar province for the Sunni Muslim insurgents. That means troops recruited for the Iraqi army must come from outside the area and would be largely composed of Shiite Muslims and Kurds, whose presence might exacerbate the insurgency.

Sattler said he didn't know the current ethnic and religious makeup of the Iraqi units in the region. But he said coalition and Iraqi officials have made a big push to recruit more Sunnis into the army, with the ultimate goal of having mixed units "that are reflective of the population of the country."

"I do know that the battalions that are coming in there now are performing very well, and they continue to get better," he said.

In a separate development, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that he's signed off on a recommendation to create a special operations command for the Marine Corps. The unit, which will be based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., will be part of U.S. Special Operations Command. The effort is part of a broader move by Rumsfeld to bolster special operations capabilities among the military services in response to the war on terrorism.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.