American units have already withdrawn from the western Euphrates River valley — twice, in fact. As the insurgency heated up in early 2004, the Seventh Marine Regiment pulled up stakes and went to fight insurgents in eastern Anbar, leaving the rest of the province in the hands of a battalion of troops. The Marines balanced obvious risk against the possible reward of overwhelming some of the insurgent groups in the east.
The consequences were immediate and bloody. Insurgents assumed control of several towns and villages. They tortured and executed police officers, local politicians, friendly tribal leaders and informants. They murdered contractors who had worked with the Americans or the Iraqi government. They tore down American-financed reconstruction projects and in a few cases imposed an extreme version of Islamic law. Many Iraqi military units collapsed in the absence of United States support.
The insurgents celebrated their self-described victory and exploited the withdrawal for propaganda purposes. Baathist-led insurgents used the opportunity to establish training camps and weapons caches in the farmland and along the river banks while other groups, including Al Qaeda, smuggled in fighters, suicide bombers and money to support operations in Ramadi, Falluja and Baghdad. Western Iraq became a temporary haven for criminals, terrorists and thousands of local thugs who made up de facto mini-regimes in the absence of a stabilizing force.
When the Seventh Marines returned to western Anbar it was essentially forced to retake some of the towns it once controlled. Many local Iraqis were openly hostile; the battle for the hearts and minds of the population was set back months, if not years. With the politicians murdered, local civil administration was almost nonexistent and any influence held by the central government was lost.
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