Saturday, February 18, 2006

Iraq-Bound Marine Leaders Cram on Civics and Economics

Maj Gen Zilmer was Fox Company Captain in 1982 when we first went into Beirut.

Published: February 13, 2006

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., Feb. 7 — Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer is busy these days poring over classified intelligence reports on the insurgency in Iraq's restive Anbar Province.
Skip to next paragraph
The Reach of War
Go to Complete Coverage

But as General Zilmer, a 53-year-old veteran of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, prepares to take command this month of 30,000 marines and soldiers in what may be the most dangerous region in Iraq, he is also focusing on some less obvious projects.

Those include collecting information on the 10 largest employers in the province, the vast desert area west of Baghdad, trying to figure out how to ensure that local police officers and health workers there are being paid and thinking about the region's business challenges like an entrepreneur.

As new Marine commanders prepare to head to Iraq for a yearlong tour and gird for new battles there with insurgents, they say they must also put greater emphasis on helping the new Iraqi government provide essential city services, create jobs and promote local governmental control.

"Our focus of operations has been along security lines in the past, and they'll remain imperative," said General Zilmer, who as a young officer in the 1980's served in the Marine peacekeeping mission in Beirut. "That said, we think there are other things that also require attention to be successful, including economics and governance. These are all happening at once."

That philosophy fits neatly under the strategy of Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli of the Army, the new overall commander of daily operations in Iraq, who says the military must not shortchange reconstruction and democratization efforts even while it battles insurgents.

Here at this sprawling base north of San Diego, General Zilmer's 700-member staff from the First Marine Expeditionary Force has been taking that guidance to heart.

Last month, General Zilmer sponsored a two-day conference here to develop ideas on how to help speed reconstruction and the growth of civic organizations in Anbar, a contested region about the size of Arkansas that includes Falluja and Ramadi.

The 75 participants in the conference included military civil affairs specialists, specialists from the State and Commerce Departments, Iraqi business groups and an array of American private contractors who are working in Iraq. Practical tips, like those General Zilmer is studying, flowed from the meeting. Marines said they met contacts who could help them in Iraq.

"They'll be working in the most dangerous part of Iraq, and will need to have a lot of flexibility on the ground," said Frederick D. Barton, a specialist on reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who attended the conference.

General Zilmer said an officer might be assigned to Amman, Jordan, to help promote job growth and business development in western Iraq. Marine commanders expressed support for establishing military-civilian provincial reconstruction teams in Anbar similar to those operating in Afghanistan and other parts of Iraq.

The Marines express hope that promoting economic gains and political growth in the impoverished region will dissuade Sunnis in Anbar from supporting the insurgency.

"This is all about converting those Iraqis on the fence," said Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, who oversees all marines in Southwest Asia, including Iraq, from his headquarters here.

But Marine commanders say they face a shrinking window of opportunity. American influence is expected to diminish as Iraq's new government takes control. If Sunnis feel shut out of the political process by Shiite and Kurdish leaders, insurgent attacks are expected to increase, despite a series of operations last summer and fall in the Euphrates River Valley that commanders say disrupted the insurgents' ability to send suicide bombers into Baghdad and other major cities.

The 30,000 marines and soldiers in Anbar have represented about 20 percent of the total American force in Iraq since last April, but they also have suffered about 35 percent of the combat deaths in that period. Homemade bombs remain the No. 1 killer.

"I don't see it decreasing," said Brig. Gen. Robert B. Neller, a veteran of American military missions in Panama, Somalia and Bosnia and General Zilmer's deputy for operations, referring to the number of bombs. "It's clearly the weapon of choice."

To combat the insurgency, the Marines plan to increase the training of Iraqi soldiers, border guards and the police force, whose numbers in the province have grown to about 24,000 from a few thousand a year ago. "Some of them still have a long way to go," General Zilmer said, referring to the recruits.

With growing domestic pressure to reduce the number of American forces in Iraq, General Zilmer will command a staff that is about 500 marines smaller than that of the headquarters he is replacing. He and his deputies have been talking regularly with the departing command under Maj. Gen. Stephen T. Johnson in Anbar since last summer, and they visited Iraq in October.

More than 60 percent of the marines under General Zilmer have previously served in Iraq or Afghanistan. They conducted training exercises in mock Iraqi villages in the nearby Mojave Desert, including tactics to counter roadside bombings. For his headquarters staff, General Zilmer had briefings prepared on Iraqi culture, geography and politics.

For now, General Zilmer discounts fears that simmering sectarian strife in Anbar could boil into civil war.

"The challenge," he said, "will be to demonstrate to them that there's some benefit to being a single people, to being an Iraqi people."