RUTBAH, Iraq --
Dreams were difficult to imagine for more than 300 girls at Shahira al-Joulan Girls Primary School in western Iraq, who have grown up in a world plagued with poverty, a dearth of basic essential services, violent insurgent battles, and constant U.S. military presence in the city.
But things have changed drastically in Rutbah over the past year. Since the Reserve Marines of 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 8, arrived in the area in October, there has been very little violence.
Not one Marine has fired a shot in the city for more than six months, and Coalition forces are working arduously with the U.S. State Department and local Iraqi government officials to provide reliable electric and water services to local citizens, and spearhead a host of initiatives to improve the city’s infrastructure and quality of life.
Since the security situation in Rutbah has improved, the Marines’ focus of effort has shifted from fighting insurgents to establishing constructive “lines of operation” which include initiatives in governance, communications, essential services and economic development.
On Feb. 16, 2009, the Marines of the 2nd Bn. conducted their sixth Rutbah-area school visit at Shahira al-Joulan. The event included an interview with the principal, an inspection of the school’s infrastructure, and the distribution of more than 400 stuffed animals.
The city mayor and director of engineering projects also accompanied the Marines and spoke to the students about the successful elections held Jan. 31.
More important than just bringing toys, the Marines came with an abundance of smiles and a message of hope.
“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Kevin Bedard to a class of sixth grade students.
“Before a dream is realized, the soul of the world tests everything that was learned along the way,” continued Bedard, quoting author Paulo Coelho through the help of an Arabic interpreter. “[The world] does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we have learned as we have moved toward that dream.”
“It is an exciting time to be a young lady in Iraq,” continued Bedard now using his own words. “I challenge you to set goals and have dreams for your future. Don’t be afraid and don’t let anyone tell you your dreams can’t come true. You must not quit, as there will be setbacks along the way. As you get closer, the difficulty will increase. Like when you walk into the wind, right before you get to your destination, the wind will always be the strongest. Don’t give up, because you never know what the next day will bring.”
Currently serving as a senior watch officer with the battalion, Bedard, accompanies the infantrymen on patrols into the city whenever his schedule will permit.
When speaking with the school principal, Wajda Zaiek Habib, the Marine leaders on the patrol realized this serendipitous event provided them the opportunity to not only get to know the students, but also rebuild bridges with the school staff.
Habib explained that prior to this visit, her only impression of Coalition forces was from the U.S. military unit which came into the school while it was closed during heavy fighting in 2003 and 2004 to search for insurgents.
With the assistance of the U.S. State Department provincial reconstruction team, they are facilitating the construction of two new classrooms at al-Joulan to repair damages sustained by the school earlier in the war.
The Rutbah citizens’ collective view of Coalition forces began to change dramatically in mid-2007, explained Qasim Marai Awwad, the mayor of Rutbah, with the assistance of an interpreter.
Awwad, who served in the Iraqi Army for 20 years and fought against the Americans in 2003, said that because of the Coalition’s work alongside Iraqi Security Forces “to separate the terrorists from the citizens” during the height of the insurgency, the city is now a safer place.
“The building projects, the school visits, these have helped to change perceptions in the minds of the Iraqi people,” said Awwad, who metaphorically described the relationship between the Americans and the Iraqis as two soldiers on a battlefield.
“If a soldier sees an enemy he has injured in battle, he can leave him to die, or he can go and help him,” stated Awwad. “The Americans have chosen to help.”
As the Coalition draws down their forces in the Al Anbar region and hands over many security responsibilities to Iraqi security forces, Awwad added a caveat that some Coalition security assistance is still vital to the success of the fledgling democracy here, which he described as a baby struggling for life.
“We can not make any development or progress without your help,” said Awwad. “Things are better than before. The people, they have freedom now…. But we need time to grow.”
For more information on the ongoing mission in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, visit www.iimefpublic.usmc.mil/iimeffwd.