AL-ASAD, Iraq — The base loudspeaker no longer wakes them up with calls for blood donors; armored trucks sit idle in neat rows. The U.S. Marines who stood at some of the bloodiest turning points of the Iraq war are packing up and leaving.
Among the first troops to invade in March 2003, and the first to help turn enemy insurgents into allies, the Marines will be the first major wave of American forces to go as the U.S. military begins a withdrawal to be completed by the end of next year.
At their peak in October 2008, an estimated 25,000 Marines were in Iraq, mostly in the country's western Anbar province. Now only about 4,000 remain. They, too, will be gone shortly after the Marines officially hand over responsibility to the Army on Saturday.
"The security and stability that exists here is well within the means of the Iraqi security forces to maintain," Maj. Gen. Rick Tryon, the Marine commander in Iraq, said in a recent interview. "You don't need United States Marines to do this at this point. So it's time, and it's timely."
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Besides, he added: "Afghanistan is calling."
The Pentagon already has deployed a Marine battalion to Afghanistan in a 30,000-troop buildup set to peak this summer.
More than 40 percent of all deaths of coalition forces in Iraq between 2004 and 2006 were inflicted in Anbar, a vast mostly desert province stretching from the western outskirts of Baghdad to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Of the nearly 3,500 U.S. troops killed so far in hostile action in Iraq, at least 851 were Marines.
At the sprawling Marine base outside Al-Asad, 100 miles west of Baghdad, Master Sgt. Matthew Sewell recalls being awakened by the appeals for blood.
As a severely wounded Marine was flown in by helicopter, "We'd go down there and stand in line, waiting to give blood," said Sewell, 26, of North Fort Myers, Fla. "You'd see 200 people standing in line. We'd all stand there until the guy was stabilized or we gave blood."
Conditions in Anbar forced the Marines, whose traditional role is shock and assault, to fight in ways more suited to the Army — fixed areas of operation, occupation of territory. They were less well equipped for that at the start, initially lacking heavily armored vehicles.
In the battles for control of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, the Marines saw some of the most brutal and deadliest fighting of the war.
Then, in 2006, came a turning point, beginning in Anbar: Sunni insurgents, fed up with al-Qaida attacks and threats, switched allegiance to American forces to create the so-called Awakening Councils — Iraqi security guards protecting their tribes and neighborhoods.
The departure is a daunting logistical challenge. More than 382,000 trucks, radios, weapons and other equipment have had to be checked, packed and shipped — either back to the U.S. or to Afghanistan. By the end of December, 15,324 pieces of equipment were left, said Col. Jim Clark, who is overseeing the process.