FORWARD OPERATING BASE DUKE, Iraq -- The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) assumed operational control of the An Najaf and Al Qadisiyah provinces during a ceremony here July 31.
Operating out of three bases -- Duke, Echo and Hotel -- outside the cities of An Najaf and Ad Diwaniyah, the Marines will work under the Polish-led Multi-National Division Central South.
The MEU will conduct a myriad of operations across the spectrum of conflict that include combat operations; training, equipping and building leadership in the Iraqi security forces; and conducting civil military operations in their area of responsibility south of Baghdad.
"We hope to have a good cooperation between us and the Marines," said Iraqi Lt. Col. Saadi Saleh Almaliki, battalion commander, 404th Iraqi National Guard Battalion. "We expect the Marines to supply us with good support."
The MEU is devoted to helping the Iraqis secure and stabilize their country.
"We are here to help you defeat, in whatever means necessary, those who work against the Iraqi people and democracy," said Col. A. M. Haslam, commanding officer, 11th MEU (SOC), to the civic and military Iraqi leadership attending the ceremony.
The MEU's area of operations holds historical and current significance to Shiite Muslims around the world. An Najaf, population 550,000, is home to Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army. The 10th-century Imam Ali Shrine and its neighboring cemetery make Najaf one of the holiest cities for Shiite Muslims. Ad Diwaniyah, population 450,000, is located on a branch of the Euphrates River and on the Baghdad-Basra railroad.
"It is remarkable to be here in the An Najaf and Al Qadisiyah provinces, surrounded by the rich histories and religious significance they hold," Haslam said.
A battalion of El Salvadorian infantrymen, along with Army civil affairs teams, engineers and military police will accompany the MEU's normal arsenal of an infantry battalion, air and supply assets, tanks, artillery and mechanized vehicles.
"I have the highest respect for the 11th MEU," said Polish Maj. Gen. Andrzej Ekiert, commanding general, MND-CS, to the MEU during the ceremony. "I want to welcome you to our multinational family."
After five months of rigorous training, the 11th MEU, based out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., left on May 28, one month early, aboard the amphibious assault ships USS Belleau Wood, USS Denver and USS Comstock. On July 7, the MEU arrived in Kuwait where they conducted ten days of training for security and stability operations. The first Marines then arrived by vehicle convoy and military aircraft here on July 19 and conducted a 10-day changeover with elements of the Army's 1st Infantry Division to learn the ropes of the areas.
Known as Task Force Dragon, the 1st ID soldiers were only here for a month to replace the Army's 1st Armored Division and 2nd Armored Cavalry Division, who both had been extended beyond a year in country.
"When you see the 11th MEU ready to take responsibility for this (area of operations)… we provided all that we could to set them up for success," said Army Col. Richard Longo, commanding officer, Task Force Dragon.
And the Marines of the MEU are ready to take the ball and run with it.
"The Army does a good job, we'll pick up where they left off," said Lance Cpl. Joseph T. Savagegomez, a rifleman with Headquarters and Support Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 11th MEU (SOC).
The soldiers of the Iraqi National Guard look forward to working with the Marines of the MEU.
"I feel very proud to be working with the Marines in the future," said Ammar Abdl Kadum, a member of the 404th ING.
Even with the Marines and those around them ready for their jobs, the 11th MEU's current deployment is different than most. Instead of remaining aboard ship and acting as a quick response force in the U.S. Central Command area of operations, MEU Marines will remain in Iraq for the duration of their deployment, which is undetermined at this point.
However, the MEU is resolved to succeed in their unorthodox mission, supporting Iraq's sovereignty, enabling Iraqis to take the lead in their own defense, and setting the stage for national elections. As the Iraqi national guardsmen, local police and border police assume greater responsibilities and build their strength, MEU forces will stand ready to support them in combat operations if called upon.
"Our greatest allies are the Iraqi people, who with courage and inspiration, are fighting for their own country and are determined to make things better," Haslam said. "Iraq's bright future begins with them."