Saturday, December 17, 2005

Election Day

Today is Dec. 15, election day. I’ve spent the last 3 days inside the CMOC in the heart of Fallujah. The CMOC, or Civil Military Operations Center was once a children’s center in the city, but was abandoned some time ago. It is now the home of Marines from the 6th Provisional Civil Affairs Group (6th CAG). Located in the center of the city, it has become a safe-haven for Iraqi interim government officials, Sheiks and other religious leaders needing a secure place to meet and conduct business. It is also a gathering place for Fallujans seeking claims against the military. The claims range from damaged vehicle and homes to compensation for family members accidentally injured or killed by American troops. The CMOC itself is surrounded by concertina and Hescoes, with Marines standing watch at a number of observation posts (OP) around the compound. Iraqi Police (IP) stand watch outside the entry control point (ECP), the first layer of defense against threats to the compound. The IP’s also represent US efforts to slowly turn over security of the towns and cities and towns to the Iraqi forces, though Marines hover silently in the background.

Getting to the CMOC is still a dangerous venture for US forces. IP checkpoints are scattered along the route and have dramatically decreased the number of areas where IED’s can be placed. Unfortunately, the threat still remains. On Monday, a Marine Corps 7-ton truck from RCT-8, Camp Fallujah was attacked by a suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED), or suicide car bomber. The bomber swerved his vehicle into the side of the 7-ton and detonated his explosives, instantly vaporizing himself and most of his car. The 7-ton was damaged, but the new Marine Armor Kit (MAK) affixed to the 7-ton kept the vehicle from being totally destoyed. The two Marines inside the 7-ton cab were injured and one passed away on Wednesday from his wounds. Fortunately, the driver survived and will be able to return to his family. A very sad situation for the families involved.

The Marines of 6th CAG are Marine Corps reservists who have returned to active duty to conduct civil-military operations in country. Civil-Military operations (CMO) can include any sort of community or economic improvement project funded, organized or coordinated by the US Military and other US Government Agencies (OGA), such as the United States Agency for Independent Development (USAID) or the US Department of State. Whether processing a claim, speaking to a Sheik about repairs to a road or Mosque, or organizing national elections, the CAG Marines remain committed to rebuilding vice warfighting. The CAG staff works closely with the community leaders to build cooperation and trust, little of which could be found in Iraq until this year.

The efforts of the CAG have garnered the trust of many Fallujah residents who would not have dared venture near the CMOC a year ago. In 2004, Fallujah was the site of the single largest military operation against the insurgency since President Bush declared an end to hostilities in 2003. In an effort to route Fallujah of the insurgents who had taken control of the city over the preceding months, I MEF plowed through the city in a massive, coordinated military attack. Marines methodically cleared houses and mosques, searching building by building as they pushed through the city blocks. We lost many Marines, but also killed hundreds of insurgents who vowed to fight to the death against the coalition forces. In the process, hundreds of the city structures were destroyed. These buildings still bear the scars of war – bullet holes pockmark the exteriors; roofs and walls lie crumbled in piles where grand structures once stood. The city remains a wasteland bearing a remarkable semblance to Berlin and London following air raids in World War II. Since that time, however, the Marine Corps and OGA have made a herculean effort to reverse the damage inflicted upon the city by helping rebuild the city.

An incredible amount of money has flowed to Iraq for the reconstruction and rebuilding efforts. Until recently, most of the money used for these efforts came from frozen Iraqi assets held since the UN imposition of sanctions in 1991. Billions of dollars were frozen around the globe. From the New York City Federal Reserve alone, several billion dollars in cash were transferred to waiting 747’s and flown directly to the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), ready to be distributed by the coalition. Further, a separate “oil for food” fund was tapped into and brought thousands of tons of consumer goods into the country. The US and other countries have also invested large amounts of their own monies into the rebuilding effort, though the majority came directly from money that Saddam stole away over the years during his dictatorship.

At this very minute, the CMOC is crawling with reporters covering the national elections. Today is a historic moment…it will be the first time in decades that Iraqis will elect their own government. Many Iraqis have no knowledge of politics or of the political candidates themselves and will vote for the person endorsed by their Sheik or tribal leader. Regardless, this election is the first step toward the formation of democracy in Iraq.

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