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Soldiers face twin challenges of fighting enemy, promoting good will

IN CENTRAL IRAQ—Spc. Matthew Fleming saw a 12- or 13-year-old boy dart around the corner of a building. Fleming, 28, got out of his Humvee to peek down the alley where the youngster came from.

That's when the grenade exploded.

"It knocked me off my feet," Fleming said. "I was totally deaf at the time, like watching a movie when everything goes quiet."

Fleming, a former Verizon technician from Rehobeth, Mass., who shifted from National Guard to active duty after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is with the 1st battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment. He was treated by a medic and went back to work Friday, wiser and more wary.

On Saturday, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were passing out food and water to civilians in the same city, near the same alley where Fleming was nearly killed.

Soldiers throughout southern Iraq are dealing with two challenges. They must "take" towns from Iraqis through combat, but then "keep" them through cooperation. Sometimes the situation calls for both approaches, sometimes on the same day.

The "fight or feed" choice isn't an easy one. Troops must be suspicious of civilians as they eliminate militia groups who fight in civilian clothes and use car bombs. At the same time, they need to generate good will for post-war Iraq, when the need will be greatest for a stabilized, new government.

First Lt. Ronald Rigaud, 31, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., reflected the angst: "With those long robes and everything" are they hiding hunger or weapons?

At two communities Saturday, one north of the Euphrates River and another south, other units from the 82nd passed out boxes of water bottles and humanitarian rations to recipients who weren't eager to take them.

"They don't need any," a translator explained to the soldiers as they talked to leaders in the Samawah community. "What they want is their own water and electricity."

A similar scene was played out Saturday in an area about 60 miles south of Baghdad between the besieged towns of Karbala and Hillah. Humvee and infantry units from the Army's 101st Airborne Division and tanks from the 1st Armored Division had seized control of a key bridge to cut off support lines between Karbala and Hillah.

Tanks were planted at each end of the bridge. The span across the green and brown Euphrates turned out to be wired with explosives. The troops didn't catch the wiring when they crossed Friday night, but there was no enemy around to blow the bridge.

Soldiers also found mines, half covered, in dirt mounds near the bridge. "Now's the time to be on your guard, men," said Capt. Kenneth Hutchison, who commands the Humvees.

Near the bridge an Army truck roved, blaring a message in Arabic through a loudspeaker: "Do not interfere or you will be forcibly removed."

Crowds pressed toward U.S. troops on both sides of the bridge, waiting for hours for something to happen.

Toward the end of the day, a man walked up to Hutchison and said of Iraqi militia: "They run away when you come, but maybe they come back tonight and kill people. Please protect us."

The man further pleaded with Hutchison, asking, "Will you stay here or go?"

Looking him in the eyes, Hutchison gave his best answer. "It's not my decision."

In the town of Aziziyah, the U.S. soldier-civilian exchange was more enterprising.

Marines bought Iraqi cigarettes from the welcoming citizens during a patrol of the town's main street and bustling market.

Iraqi cigarettes, going for $1 a pack in U.S. currency, are harsh but cheap and available.

"They were better than what we'd been smoking—nothing," said a Marine sniper.

While battles have raged outside of Baghdad, Marines in towns to the south have not been fired on in days. They have cleared several towns and destroyed tons of Republican Guard munitions.

"Throughout these cities, the focus is searching schools and buildings flying the Iraqi flag," said Capt. Joseph Bevan, executive officer for Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion of the First Marine Division.

"Some of the citizens have brought weapons to us," said Capt. Dan Rose, a forward air controller from Dallas. "They want to show us where the Baath Party guys live."

While the city was searched, citizens of Aziziyah tried to befriend Marines, who searched cars entering the city to protect against a suicide bomber.

Said one English-speaking Iraqi about the townspeople:

"They are a little afraid but they are very happy. They suffered a lot from Saddam," said the 40-year-old teacher, who was educated in the United States and would not give his name.

"Now they have ambition. They have hope. They expect they will get their freedom and democracy."

Iraqis traded currency with the picture of Saddam Hussein for dollar bills. They sold cigarettes and sodas to the Marines. Some Marines swapped pictures of sexy "Baywatch" stars for cigarettes.

The battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqis continues.

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(Johnson reports for The Charlotte Observer; Lasseter reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader; Peterson reports for the (Biloxi) Sun-Herald.)

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

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