Combat vs. Construction

Western Iraq is tougher than the rest of the country. Desolate Al Anbar province is poor, sparsely populated and, this time of year, bitterly cold. Not to mention dangerous, with native malcontents and foreign fighters taking potshots, planting bombs and periodically getting organized into honest-to-god small units for street firefights.al_anbar_seabees.jpgThe Seabees of Mobile Construction Battalion 133 know all about this. They got detachments all over the province, at Al Taqaddum, Ramadi, Fallujah and a God-forsaken border outpost called Rawa. Most of the Seabees stay on the bases doing construction work and dodging the occasional mortar round, but some run dangerous convoy escort missions. Four from 133 got hurt a few weeks back in one attack on a convoy.I embedded with 133 here at Al Taqaddum airfield. Over the next week I'll pay visits to Ramadi and Rawa before ending my tour with the battalion at Al Asad air base. Anticipating my night in Rawa, Senior Chief Bob Crandall from the Al Taqaddum detachment advised I borrow a blanket or two. Facilities are primitive and the weather is cruel. But it's not weather I'm worried about.At Al Taqaddum, a small Seabee detachment plays housekeeper to a population of several thousand soldiers and Marines. The Seabees can do just about any civil engineering or construction job you can imagine. Here, they put up buildings, repair old decaying Iraqi wiring and plumbing, and patch up the battered runway where Air Force C-130s, Marine Corps helos and Army Sherpa airlifters deliver a constant stream of men and material.But, according to Crandall, their most rewarding missions are always the ones that get them into the local community, building schools and repairing infrastructure and winning hearts and minds. That's what 133, which is based in Mississippi, was doing stateside in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But here in Iraq, Crandall's detachment rarely leaves the protective nest of Al Taqaddum; the threat level's just too high. Which is a shame, since the nearby town of Habbaniyah sure could use their expertise.This is the story in much of Iraq but especially here in the western part of the country. Security is deteriorating, putting an end to serious reconstruction projects and creating an atmosphere in which day-to-day interaction between coalition troops and Iraqi civilians is impossible. There's a spiral effect. The alienation creates distrust which leads to further alienation and only makes security even worse. In such an environment, the only feasible operations are combat operations.-- David Axe

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