Latin forces ready to take charge

18 Sep 2003 | Army Staff Sgt. David Bennett

Latin American forces are taking on an historic role as they prepare to replace Marines in Iraq's holy city of An Najaf.

The Spanish Brigade, which is comprised of one battalion each from El Salvador and Honduras as well as a command element from Spain, arrived three weeks ago.

During that short period, the forces have been working side-by-side with members of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, which prepares to return to 29 Palms, Calif.

The brigade is part of the Polish-led Multinational Division that is assuming control of five southern Iraqi provinces from the First Marine Expeditionary Force.

This marks the first time that troops from El Salvador or Honduras have been deployed to support an operation of such magnitude, said Lt. Col. Santiago Sabino Monterroza, commander of the Battalion Cucastlan, which was the first Latin American contingent to arrive in Iraq.

Monterroza said his battalion's performance so far has exceeded his expectations.

"I think it is going very well," he said. "Our soldiers are very motivated. We are very motivated to accept the responsibility."

Dividing the 40,000-square-kilometer province in half, both battalions took charge of Najaf Sept. 5, less than three weeks after arriving in Iraq.

The Honduran soldiers operate in the northern part of the province, and El Salvador's troops occupy the south.

To get ready for their mission, the 700 soldiers rehearsed for months back in their countries of origin.

Each unit concentrated on such things as manning traffic checkpoints, handling prisoners of war, carrying out patrols and conducting convoy operations.

Currently, the Latin contingents are carrying out those same duties in the Najaf province.

Major Kyle Ellison, operations officer for 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, said the Latin battalions, working independently and jointly, have scored key accomplishments already including the seizure of a number of illegal small arms at roadway checkpoints and conducting a successful raid on a Ba'ath Party-meeting house.

"Each battalion does its own planning for its battlespace," Ellison said. "They have been successful at securing critical infrastructure such as the fuel pipeline, the water treatment plant and the ASP."

The ASP, or ammunition supply point, is a huge parcel of land northwest of the city where large concrete bunkers house tons of Iraqi munitions.

The responsibility of ensuring security of the site, as well as other critical points in northern Najaf, falls to Honduras' Battalion Xatruch.

Besides assuming control of the Marines' military operations, each brigade will assist the Spanish in continuing the ambitious reconstruction effort began by the Marines.

Working with Army civil affairs reservists during the last few months, the Marines have managed millions of dollars in grants and projects, including repairs to power and water treatment plants, hospitals and schools.

Colonel Carlos Andino, commander of Battalion Xatruch, said because of exposure of joint training and numerous classes taught by the Marines, the Spanish Brigade is ready to assume the mantle of peacekeepers in Iraq.

"I'm very thankful for all the support we have received from the Marines," Andino said. "They were open to us. I feel without their help, our job would be very hard."

Though Battalion Xatruch has participated in major peacekeeping operations before " the most recent in Haiti " the colonel acknowledged that overcoming cultural and language barriers in Iraq will be challenging.

Andino said, however, he has no doubt that the battalion will succeed.

"My troops are very well trained to do this work in Iraq," he said.

Though the official transfer of authority has been postponed since the bombing of a mosque in the city of An Najaf Aug. 29, Lt. Col. Christopher Woodbridge, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native who commands 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, is confident the Latin American contingent is more than prepared to replace the Marine battalion that has been here since April. 

"The Latin American battalions have assumed responsibility for areas of operation in all but name," Woodbridge said.