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US Marines will exit Iraq by spring of next year

They'll head to Afghanistan, where the fighting seems more in keeping with the Marines' style of focused, shorter missions.

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They are considered the "soldiers of the sea," but US Marines have been deployed to landlocked Anbar Province in western Iraq since 2003.

Soon, they will be coming home.

Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, said Thursday that all but a handful of the 16,000 Marines in Anbar would be out of the country in less than a year.

"We think in the spring of 2010 that [Marine commander Maj. Gen. Richard Tryon] will close the door, turn out the lights, and end Marine Corps presence in Iraq," General Conway told an audience of veterans at the National Press Club in Washington.

It's a departure long-awaited by the Marine general. Conway has championed the move for more than a year as he has sought to take the Marine Corps back to their expeditionary roots. The idea is to take Marines out of Iraq, which has hundreds of built-up bases with reasonably good living conditions, and put them in Afghanistan, which doesn't.

Marines essentially operate as a self-sustained light unit that conducts a focused mission for shorter periods, leaving the Army as the occupying force. But the war in Iraq required thousands of troops, and the US Army couldn't do it alone, so Marines remained in Anbar. As they went back for "rotation after rotation," Conway grew concerned that the deployments were reshaping the Marine Corps, and not for the better.

So he pushed to pull Marines out of Iraq, where tensions had decreased, and into Afghanistan, where the limited infrastructure and more intense fighting seemed more in keeping with what Conway sees Marines doing.

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