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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

In the south of Iraq, the province of Qadisiyah has been the most completely taken over by various Shiite militias. It has become a transit route for weapons from Iran. There are no extra U.S. troops for a surge in this part of the country. Instead, General David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, decided he could spare three Marines.

NPR's Anne Garrels has this story about three people with a very big job.

ANNE GARRELS: Three young Marines - two men and a woman between 28 and 30 - climb into their Humvee to solve yet another problem.

ANN GILDROY: We're going to take the back route because that's one route apparently laid with IEDs, so...

GARRELS: In this largely ignored province, Captain Ann Gildroy and her two fellow Marines are trying to glue the broken pieces back together. The Iraqi army is stretched thin. The police are untrustworthy. The small detachment of American National Guardsmen posted here as advisors don't have the necessary skills. The larger Polish force based here is also ill-prepared and limited in what it can do by Polish law. And to cap it off, relations with their Iraqi counterparts are not good.

Twenty-eight-year-old Marine Sergeant Alex Lemons says the problems are pretty overwhelming.

ALEX LEMONS: This should not be going on after this much time.

GARRELS: Since his last tour of duty here two years ago, the situation has unraveled. Sergeant Lemons says people here don't know where to turn.

LEMONS: They're also, and rightfully so, distrustful of the coalition because they've had a lot of broken promises since 2004.

GARRELS: Captain Seth Moulton says any Iraqi down here has good reason to sit on the fence.

SETH MOULTON: He better be very careful about supporting us because he could very well find himself dead.

GARRELS: Captain Moulton says his team's first challenge is to bring in the local tribes to counter the militias. He says the Americans have tragically ignored them.

MOULTON: Well, the tribes run Iraq. It is something that's hard for Americans to understand. I think it's hard - it was very hard for us to grasp over the past few years because we came here and said we were establishing a democracy, you know, this tribal law is going to go out the window. And now, we're learning better.

GARRELS: A crane moves guard posts into position along a major highway. These Marines are paying sheikhs and their tribesmen to protect this American supply route. It's a windswept desolate area easily hit by militias.

In addition to security, this program offers desperately needed jobs - an alternative to the militias which pay.

At first, only nine sheikhs dare come forward, afraid of a backlash from Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Jaish al-Mahdi. But Captain Ann Gildroy says dozens more are now lining up to be part of the program.

GILDROY: Part of this is also giving those sheikhs some leverage, some tool to deliver to their people when Jaish al-Mahdi and their financing from Iran - it's a pretty powerful force to contend with.

GARRELS: Riyat Musa(ph), the father of seven, is one of the new guards on the highway.

RIYAT MUSA: (Through translator) Most people here are in the militias because we are so poor. We have no other income. But now, the tribe can pay me to protect my people and feed my family.

GARRELS: Sheikh Taklif Abid Alidana(ph) says the more the Americans can do to support the tribes and counter the militias and Iran, the better it would be for everyone.

TAKLIF ABID ALIDANA: (Arabic spoken)

BLOCK: He said you will be pleased of what we are doing and the Americans will be pleased, and all of the people will be pleased of what are we doing.

GILDROY: I agree.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

GARRELS: To celebrate the employment of the first tribal guards, Sheikh Taklif invites the three Marines to lunch at what passes for a farm nearby. The poverty of southern Iraq is stark. The buildings are crude structures of mud and straw. There is no electricity, no safe water, no nothing.

KAREEM: (Arabic spoken).

GARRELS: Kareem, a local farmer, says there is no hospitals, no doctors. The nearest school is 30 miles away. The children here are fated to be illiterate. Kareem says the Shiite government has done nothing for people. The others seated on the floor nod an agreement.

This area abuts the oil-rich region further to the south. But here, the only income is from agriculture. The irrigation canals are choked. There's no equipment to clear them or work the soil. There's no credit to buy equipment. Meanwhile, cheap food is flooding the market from neighboring Iran which subsidizes its farmers. This growing Iranian commercial network worries senior American commanders and local sheikhs alike.

These three Marines move on to their next project - a patrol station in downtown Diwaniya, the provincial capital, a city of almost half a million. Polish forces have failed to control it and it's overrun by politically-backed militias and criminals armed with sophisticated weapons allegedly imported from Iran. The governor and police chief were recently assassinated.

On one of his first missions inside the city, Sergeant Alex Lemons found people were terrified of Sadr's militia known as JAM.

LEMONS: This little girl had no hair. It was - almost all of it had fallen out. Her eyes were sunken back all the way into her skull. And there's a medical facility at Camp Echo but when I asked this mother why she hadn't tried to come to the base, she said that the JAM would kill her.

GARRELS: At the new joint security station, Iraqi and Polish forces are supposed to work together, providing a permanent presence. But Captain Moulton says it's just the first step.

MOULTON: It's not very joint yet and it's not terribly secure, but it is a station.

GARRELS: Sergeant Lemons says it's long overdue.

LEMONS: Our intelligence of the city is atrocious.

GARRELS: In its short life, the joint patrol station has been repeatedly attacked. A young Iraqi policeman who was frightened to give his name admits his units are infiltrated by the militias.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) When the captain goes on patrol, he just takes guys he trusts. If we're going to one place, he tells the others he's going to another place. It's a ruse to protect us.

GARRELS: General Othman, the commander of the 8th Division of the Iraqi army says the security situation is going from bad to worse.

General Othman Ali Farhood (Commander, 8th Division, Iraqi Army): (Speaking in foreign language)

GARRELS: He can't get enough troops, enough weapons, and more importantly, enough qualified commanders. But he trusts these three Marines and depends on them. All of them have worked in this area of Iraq in the past. They have long- standing relationships with people here. Captain Ann Gildroy helped train many of the soldiers serving under Othman, including one of her closest friends, Staff Sergeant Suher Mowafak(ph).

GILDROY: He was one of the first guys I met here. And it took us a very long time to get them boots because his feet are so big. He's a good guy. He'd definitely give his life for me, and I would for him.

GARRELS: These personal connections were hard won by these Marines over multiple tours in Iraq. That's why General Petraeus sent them here. And that's why they hope thy can make a difference.

Ann Garrels, NPR News.

BLOCK: Tomorrow, Ann tells us why these three Marines volunteered to return to Iraq even though their tours of duty were up.

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