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Suspect Iraqi civilians rounded up by U.S. Marines

MARINES COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—U.S. Marines have detained 300 Iraqi civilians in a new campaign to crush pro-Saddam gunmen who are resisting the U.S. occupation of southern Iraq.

Some detained Iraqis could end up imprisoned at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners from Afghanistan have been held.

Marines also are weighing whether to issue weapons captured from Iraqi soldiers to anti-regime civilians to help them defeat Saddam loyalists and protect the U.S. rear guard when American forces move against Baghdad, said Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, commander of all Marines in Iraq.

The roundup of suspect civilians signaled a change in the Pentagon's Rules of Engagement (ROE) for the Iraq campaign, a thick document that drew a sometimes excruciatingly complex line between military and civilian targets.

"All this nice guy ROE, that's going out the window," said one senior Marine officer. "We're going to have to expand the ROE a bit."

The detention campaign is aimed at pro-government militias and soldiers in civilian clothes who have taken the bloodiest toll on U.S. Army and Marine units in southern Iraq, ambushing them from urban centers and roadsides and then melting into the populace.

A white flag means nothing in this war.

A carload of Iraqi civilians with a white flag approached Marines Saturday on a highway south of the Iraqi city of al Kut on the Tigris River. An Iraqi military truck with five soldiers followed and shot at the civilians when they were near a Marine checkpoint, where an M-1 tank blocked the way.

Marines fired on the Iraqi truck when it began to fire on the civilians.

After the gunfight, a woman was dead from a wound to the back of the head. Several men in the car, a Volkswagen Passat, came toward the Marines, who told the men to sit in the road. An injured girl climbed into her father's lap as he held his hands above his head. An infant in the car was not harmed.

The truck was loaded with weapons and explosives. One of the Iraqi soldiers pretended to be dead for more than an hour, then raised a pistol when Marines investigated. He was killed, said Maj. Chris Gideons of Richmond, Va.

The incident was another in a series of Iraqi attempts to use civilians as shields.

While many residents of the farming area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have waved to the Marines, the military has become more cautious when they see a civilian with a white flag.

"We're going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, and they're using it against us," said Capt. Daniel Rose of the 1st Marine Division.

U.S. Marine battalions operating near Qal'at Sukkar also reported encountering soldiers discarding their uniforms, donning regular clothes and forcing civilians to serve as human shields in efforts to overrun American defenses.

Two U.S. officers said the decision to detain suspicious civilians came after Marines began noticing young, well-fed civilians with military boots, short haircuts and nice watches dawdling in unusual places. The two officers asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive issues surrounding the arrest of civilians in wartime.

Troops from 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit first noticed them in the southeastern port of Umm Qasr, and later the Marines of Task Force Tarawa saw them in the south central city of An Nasiriyah.

"They're the only well-fed Iraqis in the area," said one officer. "Seeing young, healthy males in the middle of a firefight makes you wonder what they're doing there."

"We're still figuring this out because we thought we'd have mass surrenders, not this crap," said one of the officers.

Pentagon officials had expected tens of thousands of soldiers to surrender. Instead, only 4,000 POWs have been captured, while many thousands more appear to have simply put on civilian clothes and returned home.

But some have apparently joined the pro-Saddam militias that are ambushing U.S. supply convoys, especially in the so-called "Ambush Alley" near two vital bridges in Nasiriyah, where about half of all U.S. casualties so far have occurred.

"These are bad guys and it would be insane to let them roam the battlefield," said one officer. "If we get a few who are innocent, I'm sorry, but we can't just let them go out there and start shooting at us again."

Civilians detained under the new Marine policy will get a so-called "Article V" hearing to determine whether they are enemy prisoners or war or "unlawful combatants," like the al-Qaida and Taliban suspects held at Guantanamo.

Article V of the Geneva Convention on the rules of war says that military personnel lose their rights as protected combatants if they doff their uniforms.

U.S. soldiers will need probable cause to detain the civilians, but the Section V hearing will require a preponderance of evidence to declare them Enemy Prisoners of War (EPWs) or unlawful combatants, they said.

EPWs will get released at the end of the war, they said, adding that the U.S. military is trying to organize hearings soon.

"This isn't something we even dreamed about doing. This has been forced upon us," said one of the officers.

As for giving captured Iraqi arms to other Iraqi civilians, Gen. Conway said he regarded that as one possible way to speed the defeat of loyalist forces in southern cities and ensure that they do not return to power when the Marines move north to Baghdad.

It is "first incumbent upon us to eliminate the death squads (pro-Saddam militias) keeping the people under their boot," said the commander of the 60,000 member 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

To do that, the Marines "need good intelligence on location of their headquarters, key members," he said, "and then we hit them ... overtly and covertly."

When Iraqi citizens start to lose their fear of the regime, he added, "then it's time for them to become more proactive in their own effort ... (and) at that point we would consider giving them limited amounts of weapons."

Saddam's supporters "may come back when we get focused on Baghdad" he added, but the civilians could then defend themselves with the U.S.-provided weapons, such as assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

"Our question becomes, if we've got weapons, before we destroy them, should we not consider giving them some of these weapons, small arms exclusively, to defend themselves?" Conway said.

The Marines, with tanks and artillery, have stopped on the road to al Kut for several days while supplies catch up with them. They have not announced plans for entering al Kut, where an estimated 5,500 members of the Republican Guard are garrisoned. The city could become a difficult obstacle if the Iraqi soldiers scatter and launch suicide attacks using civilians with white flags as shields.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.