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Marines liberate house seized by Baath Party

BAGHDAD, Iraq—When Mohsen Hasabballah heard that U.S. Marines had arrived in his neighborhood Wednesday, he strolled over to see if they could help resolve his longstanding complaint: Six months ago, Saddam Hussein's Baath Party had seized his house and was using it to store weapons, without paying him any rent.

"They took it by force," the sometime laborer and taxi driver said, speaking through an American military interpreter.

The scene that then unfolded gave a window into what sorts of problems Iraqis may ask U.S. forces to solve, now that the combat aspects of the battle for Baghdad seem to be almost at an end. Before the day was over, not only had the Marines returned Hasabballah's house to him, but they also had recovered a United Nations vehicle that apparently had been stolen.

The Marines offered to help Hasabballah only after considering the possibility that they were being set up. "It's always possible he's Baath Party and could be leading us into an ambush," said Capt. Tom Citrano, the commanding officer of the battalion's Headquarters and Service Company.

They set aside their concerns and, accompanied by a heavily armed Bravo Company platoon in an amphibious assault vehicle, went to Hasabballah's house to see if it still held any weapons. As the Marines arrived in the middle of Hasabballah's old neighborhood, in eastern Baghdad's Aloubiedi City, a largely Shiite slum, curious neighbors gathered in the streets and on the sidewalks.

Hasabballah, who originally had rented the house to the government years ago to use as a clinic, used an old set of keys to open a gate and the front door locks. They still worked, but the house was empty and didn't look lived in. The windows were broken

"It's damaged," Hasabballah said, "not like I left it."

A ground-floor bedroom held a large collection of mortar rounds. Four hand grenades were in another room. Hasabballah wanted the weapons removed. The Marines carted them out the front door into a truck so they could be exploded in a deserted area.

Everyone was happy. Citrano said it was gratifying to see the reaction of Hasabballah and his neighbors. Hasabballah thanked the Marines, praised the United States and harshly criticized Saddam Hussein.

He said he was imprisoned for three years for speaking against the Iraqi president, and his brother was similarly imprisoned for five years. He said many Iraqis he knew had likewise suffered.

"Inside Iraq, there is anger," he said. "As soon as American troops arrived, we smiled because we felt our situation will change for better and better."

Other civilians who wandered into the area told how they had been beaten by Iraqi paramilitary forces. One tearful man with three boys said they had had guns held to their heads by people who wanted to force them to fight. The man insisted that Saddam was dead.

As the Marines left Hasabballah's house and walked back to their vehicles, a white Toyota 4Runner with United Nations insignia drove up the street. U.N. personnel left Iraq last month, so Marines stopped the vehicle, ordered the driver out and seized it. They drove it back to their staging area, an odd sight in military uniforms with weapons sticking out the windows.

A second vehicle with U.N. insignia was seen in the area but the Marines didn't pursue it.

The seized vehicle had been hot-wired and had no license plates, suggesting it had been stolen. It bore the U.N. insignia, and a vehicle identification number was on a small plate on the dashboard. A list of weapons inspectors' names and affiliations and a copy of their evacuation plan, both in English, were found inside. The documents were given to battalion intelligence officers.

One intelligence officer said a message had been passed to all Marine units ordering them to confiscate any U.N. vehicles they encountered, because the United Nations' fleet appeared to have been looted recently from a compound. The seized vehicle, he added, would be held and returned, to "make sure the U.N. gets its assets back, because somewhere U.S. dollars helped pay for them."

A spokesman for U.N. weapons inspectors in New York said he couldn't verify that the vehicle was theirs, "but if there were inspectors' names on a list and our evacuation plan, then it does seem highly likely that it is ours."

Noting that the weapons inspectors' trucks would have been paid for with proceeds from Iraqi oil sales, Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for the inspectors, said the organization would ask for their return, "but we don't know if we will be back to collect them."


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