KARBALA, Iraq -- After more than five months rebuilding the local infrastructure, the Marines of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment are preparing to return to home after handing over to the Bulgarian Army Aug. 26.
The Bulgarian force is in the city to guarantee a secure environment for the continued work to be done both by coalition members and the various nonprofit organizations operating in the city.
The secure situation of the city is among the highest accomplishments by the Marines, said Lt. Col. Matthew A. Lopez, 39, the battalion commander and Karbala province military governor.
"The local people trust that when the coalition forces tell them that they're going to do something... it will be done," said Lopez, a native of Naperville, Ill. "It's really that trust and confidence the local people have in the coalition forces, that's led to the security environment that we find today."
This positive relationship with the locals seems to promise to continue, Lopez said.
"We know from surveys we've conducted and the local leadership that we've talked to, to include the clerics, that the Bulgarians are well respected," he said. "The Bulgarians, because of their recent history of developing from a communist country under a dictator into a democracy, have already traveled the road that the country of Iraq is about to travel. So, local Iraqis are very receptive to the Bulgarians because they know they have traveled down that path."
In addition, the Bulgarians are quite capable of handling any situations that may threaten security in Karbala and the surrounding area, according to Lopez.
"I think the Bulgarians will do a fine job," Lopez said. "They're a very disciplined force. They know how to do security operations."
The battalion's governate support team will remain in place another 30 days to ensure a smooth transition.
"The turnover is very dependent on the Coalition Provisional Authority following through with their plan to have a civilian governate team up and running by the first of September," Lopez said.
The Marines have worked hard to make sure that the handover goes smoothly for the Bulgarians, according to Bulgarian Army Lt. Col. Grudi Ivanov Angejov, from Stara Zagora, deputy senior national representative for Bulgaria, and Deputy National Contingent Commander.
"First, I think that Colonel Lopez met us (and was) very friendly," Angejov said. "He show us most parts of our work, and he has done for us three presentations: a working briefing, a briefing of the town, and a briefing of responsibilities.
"Colonel Lopez, he is very useful for us because he want to give us all information about the town, about the people in the town. He organized a meeting for us with the leaders of the town."
As the Marines look forward to their return home, Lopez said he feels confident in the hands in which they leave the security of Karbala and the surrounding area.
"I think the Bulgarians have displayed a great attitude toward this operation," he said. "They've been very friendly with their interactions with the Iraqis, and not only that, they've been very, very eager to learn from our successes, and to avert from some of the difficulties that we had."
The words of Lopez about returning home echoed the feelings of many in the battalion who have been in theater since January.
"For me personally, I can't wait to get home to see my son, he turned one just the other day," Lopez said. "When I left he was barely crawling, and now he's walking. I think all of the Marines can't wait to get home to their loved ones.
"I think the Marines have done a phenomenal job here, to a man. They've done a great job, they've accomplished their mission-both through the combat phase and the security operations phase-and they're looking forward to going home."