Marine general cites Iraq war as diversion

/ Source: The Associated Press

The strains of fighting in Iraq have forced the Marine Corps to forego training in jungle warfare and other skills that are the traditional backbone of the Corps, the Marines’ top general said Wednesday.

“We’re not training for the other kinds” of combat that could arise at short notice, Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, told a group of Marines at the U.S. naval headquarters for the Persian Gulf.

“We are the nation’s shock troops,” he said, stressing that Marines have to be prepared to make amphibious landings and conduct operations that require training they are not getting now because Marine infantry and air units returning from Iraq have time only to get ready for their next tour of duty there.

“We’ve simply got to get back some of those skills,” like firing artillery, he said.

Conway stopped in Bahrain before heading to Iraq to visit some of the 25,000 Marines in Anbar province, the predominantly Sunni Arab region that runs west from Baghdad to its borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

An extra 4,000 Marines were sent to Anbar in recent weeks as part of President Bush’s new Iraq strategy.

Encouraged by change in Iraqi attitudes
Three ships in the Gulf carry Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is conducting an exercise now but may be called on soon to go ashore in Iraq. If so, the 2,220 Marines of the 26th would replace a like number from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is now leaving Iraq and will return to their ships this month after having twice had their Iraq tours lengthened by 30 days.

Conway said that based on his visit to Anbar in December, he was encouraged by the decision of many Sunni sheiks to stop cooperating with, or tolerating, al-Qaida extremists who are fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces.

“Those folks have just had it” with the extremists, he said, and are taking up arms against them.

There are now about 25,000 Marines in Iraq as part of a total U.S. contingent of more than 140,000.