CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq -- "General Sanchez, the I Marine Expeditionary Force is ready for duty."
With those words, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the I MEF commanding general, took responsibility for the Al Anbar province in western Iraq at a transfer-of-authority ceremony Wednesday at Camp Fallujah, Iraq.
The Marines took control of the area, which has been a nesting ground for anti-coalition terrorists and former regime loyalists, from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. They are prepared to work with Iraqi security forces to root out those who oppose a free Iraq.
"Although Marines don't normally do nation-building, they will tell you that once given the mission, nobody can do it better," said Conway. "We look forward to working with you to bring stability, security and democratic principles to the Iraqi citizens of Al Anbar."
Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, told the assembled guests it was appropriate the "two legendary organizations" were brought together.
"Today it seems fitting that we're reversing the unit roles, given that the current tour for the 82nd Airborne began with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team conducting a relief-in-place with I MEF's 1st Marine Division last year," said Sanchez.
Since then, the 82nd has conducted more than 3,500 combat patrols and trained several Iraqi security forces who stand ready to work alongside the MEF.
"With a high degree of confidence and hope, I transfer authority to the magnificent combat unit, I Marine Expeditionary Force," said Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., the 82nd's commanding general. "We have been continually impressed by their professionalism."
Conway bid farewell to the "All-American task force" during the ceremony.
"United States paratroopers and Marines are traditionally the first to engage our nation's enemies, and for that reason I trust we will see you again on another battlefield in the future," Conway said. "For now, however, my Marines and I wish your division fair winds and following seas as you return home to families and loved ones."
During the MEF's first deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it completed the longest overland assault in the history of the Marine Corps, participating in major battles in An Nasiriyah, Al Kut, Baghdad and Tikrit. After major combat ended, the Marines conducted security and stabilization operations in southern Iraq.
"We are certainly no strangers to Iraq," Conway said. "The majority of my Marines and sailors were there when we crossed the line of departure into the southern oilfields just over a year ago. We have enjoyed a brief respite in our home bases in southern California, for some as little as five months. But that's OK. If you talk to my Marines, they will tell you they believe in the mission, they believe in themselves and they believe they ought to be here."
Conway took time in his remarks to speak to members of the Iraqi security forces, including the Iraqi Police Service, Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and the border patrol.
"Just over 225 years ago, my nation fought for its freedom," he said. "Brave men stepped forward and risked their lives for an ideal we believed in. Our school children today learn of their courage and bravery, and honor their memory.
"One day Iraqi school children will learn of your great contribution to Iraq, your sacrifice and will honor the memory of what you have done. My Marines and I look forward to working and fighting along side you to bring freedom to your native land."
The Marines are expected to spend 14 months in Al Anbar, providing security and working to rebuild infrastructure, create jobs, and conduct a transition to Iraqi sovereignty.
"Much work needs to be done as we continue to move Iraq towards its rendezvous with democracy and freedom for all," said Sanchez.
"We will need to continue to take the fight to the enemy and be benevolent in victory. There is no question we will achieve victory."