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Top Marine Hears From His Troops About Tattoos, War Politics

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FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) _ When he embarked on a visit to Marines in Iraq and aboard ships in the Persian Gulf, Gen. James T. Conway figured he would get a boatload of questions about his new policy on tattoos.

He figured wrong.

The Marine Corps commandant, five months into his job as the service's top general, found his troops more curious about pay and promotion policies as well as the war debate back home.

In the more than a dozen question-and-answer sessions during the past week, not a single Marine complained about Iraq duty or wondered when the war would end. Some did ask for better equipment, and Conway assured them they soon would have new vehicles with more protection against roadside bombs.

Conway did get a few questions on his new policy banning ``excessive'' tattoos. One Marine told the tattoo-free Conway it was an important wartime issue.

``I love tattoos, I'm infatuated with them,'' the Marine said. ``Sometimes people don't understand them, but it's part of a warrior heritage.''

Conway assured him he could continue to satisfy his inky passion, so long as any tattoos received after April 1 were not of the full-arm, or ``sleeve,'' variety that Conway sees as detracting from a professional appearance.

``Yes, sir,'' the Marine responded.

Conway was the senior commander of Marine forces in the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The following year he returned for a second tour that included the aborted assault on Fallujah in April 2004.

Last week he came back to assess progress in Iraq and to offer his Marines a morale boost at a time when they are being squeezed by increasingly short rest and retraining periods between tours in Iraq.

In Fallujah he said he met a sergeant major who was serving his sixth tour in Iraq since the war began.

Marines typically return to Iraq more frequently than soldiers because their standard tour is seven months, compared with 12 months for the Army. Thus, soldiers usually get 12 months between tours.

Conway's goal is to have Marines home for 14 months after each seven-month deployment. But, he acknowledged, the average is seven months or eight months, and some get as few as five months.

``We've got to do something about that,'' he said at Taqaddum, a Marine logistics base in western Anbar province.

There are about 25,000 Marines in Iraq, mostly in Anbar.

In Qaim, a Euphrates River town on the Syrian border, Conway visited Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, on its fourth tour in Iraq. The battalion's commander, Lt. Col. Scott Shuster, said he already knows his unit is in line to come back for a fifth tour, probably before the end of this year.

Conway met with Marines in Kuwait, where members of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit _ whose tour in Iraq was extended by two months _ were heading back to their ships, and in Bahrain, the headquarters for U.S. naval forces in the Gulf.

The general went aboard three Navy ships carrying the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Gulf and told Marines he did not know if they, too, would be sent to Iraq.

In Iraq, Conway missed no opportunity to assure Marines they need not worry about the battle between the White House and Congress over war money and a timetable for beginning to withdraw troops.

``Our countrymen may or may not agree with how this war started or why we're here,'' he said at Taqaddum. ``They've matured enough to say, `That's one thing. Support of the troops is something else.' And they do support you.''

He told them they should stay focused on their mission and leave the politics to the politicians.

``I don't want what you seeing happening now in the Congress and with the administration to trouble you,'' he said in Fallujah, adding that he realized the public support is important to war fighters.

``What you see happening back there on the political front may cause some doubt in your mind, but let me tell you, don't worry about it.''
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