The colonel who commands the U.S. Marines in and around Fallujah, west of Baghdad, says the key to transferring security responsibility to Iraqi forces, and eventually reducing the U.S. troop presence in the country, is to put more American trainers into Iraqi units. The colonel spoke just two days after the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East told Congress that is what he is planning to do.
Speaking via satellite, Colonel Larry Nicholson said he has already doubled the number of his troops living and working with Iraqi units, and he would like to double the number again.
"We've taken Marines and soldiers out of our combat formations so that they can work more closely with the Iraqi security forces," he said. "My principal mission is Iraqi security force development. And I can best do that by working more closely with them every day."
Colonel Nicholson says he has about 250 of his troops embedded with Iraqi units now. He says the practice instills both procedures and values in the minds of the Iraqi troops that will help them long after the U.S. Marines have left Fallujah. And he says it is a way of putting into practice the goal often stated by senior officers and political leaders of having the Iraqi forces to do more, and the Americans and other coalition troops do less.
In congressional testimony on Wednesday, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, said increasing the number of embedded American trainers in Iraqi units is a key part of his strategy for pushing Iraqi forces to handle more of their country's security needs.
In Fallujah, Colonel Nicholson says he also works with local elected officials to promote what he calls an economic boom in the city, in spite of some ongoing violence. Fallujah was the site of fierce fighting between U.S. Marines and insurgent forces two years ago. The colonel says he tells the Iraqi civilian and military leaders they must work together to bring stability and prosperity to the city, and they must work fast.
"We also emphasize to the locals that time is fleeting," he said. "U.S. forces will not be here forever. We have no colonial aspirations. We must work together and get the heavy lifting done while we are here."
The colonel says there is also a political problem in Fallujah, which is nearly all Sunni Muslim. He says officials and residents are not satisfied with the performance of the Shi'ite-led national government, and do not trust officials there to provide for their needs.
"There is a Sunni disenfranchisement that is palpable in the city of Fallujah," he said. "They just don't believe that the government right now in Baghdad is as inclusive as it ought to be, is not reaching out as much as it ought to be."
Colonel Nicholson says U.S. forces often find themselves having to advocate for Sunni areas in talks with the Iraqi government about the funding of local projects.