Family, friends, and Fellow Marines,
As promised, here is my first "update" from this tour in Iraq. I will try and get one of these out about every month. I hope this finds you all doing well. It has been a very fast moving month and a half as we moved the 1,000+ Marines from 1/7 and literally tons of equipment and material half way around the world through Kuwait and eventually into Iraq. We have inventoried and signed for well over a hundred pieces of rolling stock, thousands of pieces of electronic equipment and computers, joined a few hundred more reinforcements to 1/7 (making us now "Task Force 1/7") and then we put everyone in their new positions, spreading us out over 500 square kilometers. Needless to say, the Marines of the First Team have been busy!
Here is the million dollar question I have been asked repeatedly since I have arrived, "How is it compared to the last time you were in Iraq?" Well, I was in Hit, the main city within our AO, last October and daytime operations were limited to tanks and BFVs driving around the outskirts of the city because to venture inside meant a certain attack by an IED, RPG, small arms, or all of the above. Recently, I went on a 3 hour dismounted patrol through town in the middle of the afternoon and my biggest worry was having enough candy for all the children that came up to me to say hello and shake my hand. I stopped in stores and talked to the merchants to see how business is doing. They told me business is good and improving everyday. I even went to a few shops to look for a carpet for my office and enjoyed myself as I tried to get the price lowered from "rich" American prices to normal Iraqi prices. I wasn't successful but will keep trying! I stopped in one of the police stations in the city so I could make plans with the Station Chief to remove a number of the cement barriers on the street in order to open traffic back up. Those barriers were a must before as there was a constant threat of a suicide vehicle ramming into the station in an attempt to kill as many of the police officers as possible. While that threat still exists, the security provided by the police and my Marines has allowed us to take risks in certain areas as we try and balance security needs and normalcy.
I spend many hours working with the numerous city counsels and Mayors in my AO to address and solve many issues, problems, and to plan for the future. A year ago, the city councils would not show up to work because if they did, they were killed as they were seen as "agents" of the Americans by AQI. Now, they look forward to my arrival so issues like schools, rubble removal, water treatment plants, sewage repairs, repairs of the electrical grids, infrastructure modernization, and an assortment of other issues can be worked out, prioritized, and assets allocated for them to begin work.
I also spend a great deal of time with the major Sheiks in my AO. They are some of the most gracious hosts you have ever met. My Marines and I are treated liked royalty every time we arrive. Delicious lamb, goat, sheep, kabobs, fresh fruits and vegetables are served in amounts we could never finish and we always eat first and get the seats of honor closest to the Sheik. We then adjourn for Chi tea and discuss issues that require my attention such as security, economic stimulation, tribal reconciliation, local government issues, and of course stories of past battles and fights...all embellished but they make great stories anyway.
Three brothers in the town of Baghdadi, one of whom who happens to be the Police Chief and is known as the "Lion of Al Anbar", are particularly gracious hosts. They were some of the first to stand up against AQI and to stand with the Marines. They have suffered greatly for choosing to fight AQI and for freedom. The Police Chief, Colonel Shab'an has had no less then 7 direct assassination attempts against him. I was here last year and saw him after one attack against him was nearly successful. One of his brothers was killed, a brother-in-law was tortured and beheaded, and one of his younger brothers lost his legs in a mortar attack.
Yet, he remains committed to a free and independent Iraq. His talks to me about freedom, democracy, and his loyalty to Iraq and justice are inspiring. Colonel Shab'an has become a sort of folk hero to his community and his willingness to stand up for their freedom and safety has inspired thousands of Iraqis. His two brothers, one a Sheik and the other a local businessman are also servants to their community.
The Sheik is the City Council Chairman and has almost single handedly reorganized the local government from a board of obstructionists to a functioning and effective governing body who work almost non-stop to improve the lives of the people within their area. The other brother is a very successful businessman who has donated tens of thousands of dollars to fix water treatment plants, to pay of the salaries of the police before the national government could or would, and his source network has led to the successful capture of many terrorists and criminals. The nights in their neighborhood are particularly enjoyable as we sit outside to eat and the children in the neighborhood run around, laughing, and sneaking up to listen to me talk or to try and get some more candy from me.
They are so proud of the security they have established for their families, their tribe, and the people in their community. I am proud just to be considered their friend.
Overall, the folks I have met are good people who want to raise their families, farm their land, and just have the ability to choose their own future for one of the few times in their country's history. Their admiration and appreciation to us and to the American people for the opportunity we have offered them is genuine and heartfelt.
While there has been a great deal of progress, there is still much to do. While most of the terrorists have been forced from the population centers, there are still secret cells. We have found and been attacked by a number of IEDs already. We have found a good number of buried caches along the river banks that were planted there for future use against us. Iraq is far from a peaceful land; there are many political issues above my level that must be worked out.
The rifts between the religious sects are as tough a problem to figure out as anything else ever has been...think Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. But the bottom line is this...we are winning the counter-insurgency fight here in Al Anbar. We are winning as a result of the past 5 years of work by thousands of Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers who worked tirelessly to get us where we are today. This didn't happen overnight and we lost many good men and women to achieve it.
We have put the enemy on the run and we are not letting the pressure off. We continue to hunt him down and provide him no rest. My Marines, actually your Marines, are patrolling in the cities, in the desert, and on the river to find the enemy and destroy him. And the Marines do not patrol alone. Almost every operation we do has Iraqi Police, Army, or both with the Marines.
They are brave, committed to winning, and they try as hard as they can to emulate the Marines they are serving with. At the same time we continue to build our relationships with the local leaders, Sheiks, and most importantly the Iraq people.
I am optimistic that if given the time and support of the American people, we can help create a country whose vast natural resources and potential will make it one of the strongest and most powerful nations in the region. Iraq will be our Ally and they will not forget the sacrifices the American people have made on their behalf. I realize and understand that many back home are tired of this conflict and want it to end. I will not provide any argument there but I will offer that "wishing" away this problem is not reality.
The Islamic extremists that wish to destroy us are not going away, they cannot be 'talked' to, and they will not negotiate. I have been here three years in a row now and I can see the progress. I can see the improvement in the capabilities and potential in the Iraqi Security Forces, I can see the willingness and desire of civic and local leaders to build a better future for their people, and I can see that most of the civilian population has turned its back on AQI because of their empty promises. I can see hope, a hope that many Iraqis have never known before, and a hope they do not want to loose.
Your Marines are doing exceptionally well. They are focused, they are disciplined, and they continue to attack each day with vigor and enthusiasm. I am continually inspired by their courage, dedication, and willingness to sacrifice for others. I am truly blessed for the privilege to lead them.
I would like to thank all of you for your continued prayers and support. It means the world to us to know you are all still behind us and that you want us to successfully complete this mission. Please remember all the 1/7 families and all the families of those serving here in Iraq that have been left behind in your prayers as well.
Semper Fidelis and God Bless,
LtCol JJ Dill