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Commandant: II MEF slated for spring in Iraq, Corps adapts for terror war

23 Jul 2004 | Staff Sgt. Bill Lisbon

The Corps' top general recently confirmed that the II Marine Expeditionary Force will take over command of Marine operations in Iraq next spring and that reservists will play a greater role this fall.During a visit here July 19, 2004, Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee told Marines and sailors that the Camp Lejeune, N.C.,-based force will relieve the I MEF, based in Camp Pendleton, Calif., which currently holds the reigns of Marine operations in western Iraq.Though the other subordinate headquarters such as the 2nd Marine Division and the 2nd Force Service Support Group will also come from the East Coast, various battalions and squadrons will be drawn from those available across the globe."To us, an infantry battalion is an infantry battalion is an infantry battalion. It doesn't matter whether it comes from the East Coast or West Coast," said Hagee.Several Lejeune-based units are already deployed to Iraq under the command of the I MEF, such as the 2nd Military Police Battalion, guarding convoys for the 1st FSSG, or 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, operating south of Baghdad.The news indicates that Marines can expect to spend another year in Iraq. "No. 1 priority, without a doubt, is this mission right here. And it is going to continue to be," Hagee said.During several talks with Marines of the 1st FSSG and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing here, the commandant discussed how the Marine Corps would adapt for its continued role in Iraq, and in the fight against terrorism abroad. "We're looking at capabilities that do not directly support the global war on terrorism ... and we're going to do away with them," Hagee said.One the commandant specifically cited was fabric repair, a field with Marines who patch holes in tents, humvee seats and flak jackets."We have over 200 Marines in the Marine Corps who have been trained to repair fabric. We don't need that anymore," he said.By eliminating antiquated jobs, the Corps will have more people available to fill the ranks of fields with shortfalls, like explosive ordnance disposal. The constant threat of improvised explosives along Iraqi highways has the bomb squad Marines in especially high demand.In the recent past, stateside bases began leaning heavily on civilians to maintain permanent facilities, such as mess halls and warehouses -- jobs that used to be done by Marines. This frees up more of the Corps' approximately 175,000 troops to deploy to foreign lands, while keeping posts running back home.Even in Iraq, the Corps employs civilian contractors. Marines pay them to cook and dish out chow, drive civilian cargo trucks, clean sinks and showers, and even fill sand bags."We are using more and more contractors to do various things, and I can tell you that's not necessarily bad," the commandant said.Operating this way works better for the Corps, Hagee said. He opposes adding more Marines to the ranks; he'd rather reconfigure the current force to handle the mission at hand. Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are pushing legislation to increase the number of Marines by as many as 9,000 and the size of the Army by 30,000 over three years. However, the costs would be too high, and when the need for increased strength has passed, the Corps would have to be drawn down again.Already, the Corps has added 3 percent to its maximum troop strength -- a provision afforded the Marines during wartime.Upwards of 35,000 are currently deployed in combat operations worldwide, with just as many training to replace them in the future.Approximately 25,000 I MEF Marines and sailors shipped out to Iraq early this year to begin the first of two back-to-back, seven-month deployments. The second wave of troops should be in place this fall. Among those will be as many as 5,000 reservists, an increase of 2,000 from the current crew."We can't do it without the reserves," Hagee said.Of the nine Marine infantry battalions presently in Iraq, one -- 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, based throughout the Midwest -- is from the reserves. Other supporting units, as well as individual reservists, augment the active-duty force. Using reservists is unavoidable, said Hagee. About half of the Marine Corps' 24 infantry battalions, in addition to many supporting units, are deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, until recently, Haiti. Furthermore, the Marine Corps has turned an artillery battalion in Iraq into provisional infantry battalion which guards convoys and supply routes, since the need for artillery is low. Whether the same number of Marines will be needed next spring to support what is being dubbed as "Operating Iraqi Freedom III" is still unclear."We're hoping for the best case. In other words we'll be able to bring down the forces," Hagee said.On June 28, the Iraqi interim government took power, ushering in a new phase in U.S. military operations where Marines would hopefully fade into the background while Iraqi national guardsmen and police kept the peace."We want to put an Iraqi face on this particular operation. We don't want to be out front. We want to train the Iraqi security forces, their army, their national guard, and their police," the commandant said."The better we can do that, the faster we can do that, the quicker we will be out of here," he said.
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