"We're in the wild Wild West," says Lt. Hamilton Ashworth after his unit arrived at the post near the border trading town of Rutbah, where highways from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria converge before heading to Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.
The local police station here bears fresh scars from rocket attacks, young men still hide grenades in the streets, and civic leaders continue to be targeted by hit squads.
The marines are now in a scramble to oust insurgents tied to Al Qaeda in Iraq. The mission's priority was underscored by a recent visit to the outpost by Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commander of all multinational forces in western Iraq. General Kelly and his staff traveled by heavily armored convoy to Rutbah to meet with city leaders in hopes of understanding why the insurgency hasn't yet fizzled.
Inside a dimly lit, thick-walled building, Kelly sat a table across from the mayor and police chief. Outside, marines and Iraqi police stood guard.
"How are the people doing? Are the schools open for children?" Kelly asks, after removing his helmet and flak jacket. "How's the economy?"
The mayor of this town of 50,000, who goes by the name Qasim, fingered the gold watch hanging from his wrist, offered a pained smile and says, "The economy? We don't have one."
The town is withering from both the Al Qaeda in Iraq-backed insurgency and the Coalition-led traffic checkpoints, Qasim says. The checkpoints aimed at snagging fighters and bomb-building supplies have stifled the town's few-remaining legitimate business.
As the general's aides scribble notes, Qasim tosses his hands in the air and says Rutbah is faced with an impossibly sticky situation. "There could not be an economy if there is no security."