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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

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Sunday, May 2

Retreating Marines now patrolling Kharma

By Gidget Fuentes | Marine Corps Times

KHARMA, Iraq - The news that many in the Arab world believe insurgents defeated U.S. Marines in Fallujah and forced them to retreat has been slow to reach the Marines in the field. When it has, the Marines have reacted with weary resignation.

Cpl. Edwin Roman, a 22-year-old from Garden Grove, Calif., said flatly, ``They beat the U.S. They beat the Marines.'' But his resignation was mixed with anger. ``It makes me want to go in there and show them...that we're not going to back down.''

Another Marine, Cpl. Michael Pinckney, 23, a communications operator from South Hastings, R.I., added, ``If the people are saying that they won, I'm not saying they're ignorant. They are misinformed and misguided. I think we should have finished the job. In the end, we are going to win.''

Other Marines were more philosophical. Sgt. Ed Mitchell said, ``We did what we were supposed to do. We did accomplish the mission.''

``We can't say they won one,'' he added. ``They lost 700-plus dead. We didn't lose 700 Marines.'' Ten soldiers from Mitchell's unit, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment of Camp Pendleton, Calif, were killed in the month-long fight in Fallujah.

Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force commander, said Saturday that the Marines will return to the city for reconstruction efforts once security improves. When they return, Pinckey predicted, the insurgents will be ready to fight again. ``You can't change their minds,'' he said.

But beyond the insurgents, Pinckney said, ``There's a lot of good people who need food and water and need to be helped. I just hope in the end, everything works out. Hopefully we'll get this country back on its feet.''

To that end, Marines who had been poised for an assault on Fallujah instead spent Sunday in Kharma, a town of 25,000 about 10 miles northeast of Fallujah, trying to win hearts and minds.

Last month, Marines on their way to Kharma for a city council meeting were ambushed by insurgents using small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. No Marines were seriously hurt in the hour-long fight, during which Marines claimed to have killed scores of insurgents.

Sunday, their return was peaceful.

Armed Marines patrolled downtown streets while a small civil-affairs team visited the city's only clinic, which was closed last month because of the fighting. Young boys frolicked nearby as light traffic crossed the roads in the heat of mid-afternoon.

Maj. Larry Kaifesh, a civil-affairs officer with 3rd Civil Affairs Group from Camp Pendleton, Calif., stood in a four-bed ward, where a trash can overflowed with used bandages and bloodstained cotton balls. Kaifesh asked if any casualties from recent fighting sought care here.

Not sure, a security guard replied. ``I took my family, and I ran away,'' he said, through an interpreter.

The Marines want to improve the clinic as part of the U.S.-led reconstruction efforts in this part of central Iraq. Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, who commands the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, also wants to establish a youth center in town. On a Saturday visit into town, Byrne found ``a degree of normality.''

``People were going about their business, kids were out, shops were open,'' he said. ``Kharma seems to be up and running.''

Still, there were reminders of the continuing dangers to U.S. military forces, and Iraqis.

On Friday, Alpha Company came across an insurgent preparing a makeshift bomb on a road near Kharma. The man blew himself up. The company located another nine improvised explosive devices placed on local roads.

On Sunday, as the Marine convoy weaved through small villages to Kharma, several mortar blasts were seen in the distance.

The attacks didn't stop the work. In one small farming village on the road to Kharma, children ran toward the street and adult men politely waved and smiled. Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Pena, 22, of Waukegan, Ill., and Lance Cpl. Mike Neal, 20, a machine gunner from Chicago's south side, waved back from their Humvee. Pena gave a thumbs-up to several boys as he drove the armored vehicle through a narrow dirt road. At one small bridge, three teenage boys removed their shirts and dove, one by one, into the sea-green waters of an irrigation channel.

At the Kharma clinic, Navy Lt. Cormac O'Connor, 29, of Indianapolis, Ind., toured the facilities with Kaifesh and two security guards who work at the clinic, which was closed Sunday. Kaifesh asked them to provide a list of needed supplies that the battalion might be able to provide.

``This is kind of nice,'' O'Connor said later. ``Kind of what we're supposed to be doing.''