RAMADI, Iraq — On March 20, 2003, the 1st Marine Division crossed the Kuwaiti
border and rapidly made its way north alongside British allies into
A year later, the heavily decorated unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif., took
authority over one of the most contentious regions in the country. Marine Maj.
Gen. James Mattis is now the top coalition commander in Multinational
Division-West, taking over Saturday for Army Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack, the
commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
For the Marines, who left the country in the fall only to return half a year
later, Iraq is familiar territory. Almost two-thirds of the force served in the
country last year.
Mattis said that experience "is invaluable," especially for junior leaders.
"These young corporals and sergeants make the difference."
He said the region itself is different from what it was when his Marines
left, and he gave credit for that to the 82nd, which ran MND-West for the last
Mattis said his Marines initially faced a "repressive government regime we
were trying to tear down. This time, we're trying to build up."
Since Task Force All-American took over operations in Al Anbar province, 68
American servicemembers lost their lives and so did hundreds of Iraqis — many
of them serving in the fledgling security forces.
In his remarks during the transfer of authority ceremony, Swannack paid
tribute to those who gave their lives as well as to the more than 500
servicemembers who were injured. He said their sacrifices helped make the
region a better place for the Iraqi people.
"We can be justifiably proud we have set the people of Iraq in this region on
a new course," he said.
For his part, Mattis told the Iraqi dignitaries attending: "I have confidence
that we can work together for Iraq's future and for the good of your children."
After the ceremony, he said that those who resort to violence won't be a part
of that future.
"Those who want to fight ... they'll regret it," Mattis said. "We'll handle
Both commanders said the two divisions have plenty in common.
Swannack said that airborne soldiers often jump into a hostile area, while
the Marines take boats. But once in theater, "we're both here doing infantry
Both divisions have been heavily deployed since Sept. 11, 2001. While the
Marines begin their second stints in Iraq, no other unit in the military has
been as busy as the 82nd, with continuous missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In fact, when the division's last brigade heads back to the States in early
April, Swannack said it will mark the first time in his command that he's had
all his soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., at the same time.
With the Army's current missions, he doesn't expect that to last for long.
Much of the division needs to regain jump status, and artillery units need to
retrain as well, he said. Both of those operations could take months.
Still, he expects to have a brigade's worth of troops ready to deploy
anywhere by May 7.
Mattis said his Marines took advantage of their brief time back in the States
to train as well. Units went through weeks of courses on language and culture
to try to help them better understand the Iraqi people.
He said Marines would interact with local residents constantly and learn more
about them along the way. Knowing their mission is making a difference for
those people will give his troops "a sense of purpose that keeps morale high."
The Marines actually will have more troops in the region than the 82nd had in
their task force, with an increase to around 22,000 from about 18,000. Mattis
said some of the Marines who just arrived in Iraq would rotate out in seven
months. The Pentagon has yet to announce a schedule following the current
rotation, which is still taking place.
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