Habbaniyah local leadership moves in right direction

24 Mar 2007 | Lance Cpl. Christopher Zahn 2nd Marine Division

Success in Iraq hinges on the ability of the Iraqi people to provide a permanent Iraqi solution to Iraqi challenges. The seeds of democracy have been planted in Baghdad and the government is showing signs of life, but it is up to the people throughout the country to ensure that the seeds grow roots.

Those roots were set a little more firmly in the greater Husaybah-Sharqiyah area March 24, when a landmark town hall meeting was held at a school in Habbaniyah. It represented a huge step forward in the progress of the area; progress that is a bit ahead of what’s happening in other areas of Al Anbar Province. The meeting was well-attended by the tribal and elected leadership of the area, along with high-ranking representatives of the Iraqi Security Forces and 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.

“The tribes are reinserting their power and resisting the insurgency,” said battalion commander Lt. Col. James F. McGrath, 41, from Laurel, Md. “This meeting was simply a manifestation of that resistance. The fact that in just a matter of three weeks, we have had a couple of town hall meetings in (different) areas (of our area of operations), and then this large meeting takes place … demonstrates that the populace is not going to be as tentative as they once were.”

The meeting was spent discussing ways to improve the security picture in the region, as well as providing basic services such as power and electricity. It was left to the locals to find a way to accomplish these tasks using their own government’s resources and not depend on the Marines for that support.

“I would rather not (do it), because they need to seek those services through their government,” said 1st Lt. Curtis L. Thomas, 28, from Lacrosse, Va. “That’s part of the transition in the provincial control of Iraqis. I’m just a temporary fix and it’s up to them to request (basic services) through their respective director generals, or the mayor. They can request it through their government and their government can provide funding.”

The meeting came about when one of the Marine company commanders worked with the local leaders in his area to successfully bring the water system back online. That small success at the company level led to more meetings as other company commanders sought out the leaders in their areas. These meetings began producing immediate results and led to a plan for a meeting on an unprecedented scale for the region.

The Marines of the “Teufelhunden” battalion began reaching out to all the religious, government, military, and tribal leaders. They gave a date, a location, a time and promised to facilitate everything else, to include bringing the mayor of Habbaniyah.

Marines from W Company, as well as Iraqi soldiers and police, coordinated to provide joint security for the meeting.  Armored Humvees and roving security police operated around the schoolhouse in an overt show of force to deter any enemy attack.

“The most important part was that this wasn’t Coalition-led,” said McGrath. “This was the mayor, the governance leading me. (The mayor) is legitimate and he is demonstrating his legitimacy to the people.”

The Iraqi Army and Police presence lent even more credibility to the meeting in the eyes of the local Iraqis. It proved that the local security forces are serious about helping water the seeds of democracy and help it take root in their country.

“The police chief and the assistant division commander who were at the meeting reinforced that,” added McGrath. “You didn’t have a meeting with lightweights: You had a meeting with just about all the heavyweights in the area in terms of Iraqi security and governance.”

The Marines had already seen one positive result before the meeting began. A month and a half ago they had rocks thrown at them by schoolchildren during a visiting the local school to see if it needed any improvements.

“In the meeting yesterday, the school principal stood up, apologized and explained how they disciplined the children,” said McGrath. “Now we come by that school and we get absolutely nothing like that. We get a warm reception.”

That small gesture epitomized the attitude that was prevalent throughout the meeting. The Iraqi leaders, both civil and military, were willing to take the steps to solve their problems. Everything the Marines have done for them so far are merely small steps; together are they capable of taking the leaps forward to a more secure Iraq.  Perhaps the events Habbaniyah and the steps forward the local leaders are taking will catch on in other regions as well.

“If we are ever going to get the huge steps forward that we need to achieve,” said McGrath. “It has to be an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem. We can read all the books we want and we can study all we want, but we’ll never understand the culture as well as the local Iraqis do. Our solution, though well-meaning, will never be the ideal solution. The Iraqis can generate the ideal solution and it will be accepted.”