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U.S. civil-affairs units trying to restore services, gain Iraqis' trust

SALIHIYAH, Iraq—On a cool, sunny morning a clutch of U.S. Army officers and the Iraqi police commander for this village under the craggy peaks of the Jalal Makhul mountains, sat across from each other on wooden benches and agreed they would work together to forge a new Iraq.

The chief said he would help the Americans in any way he could. Enemy fighters fled weeks ago taking their weapons with them, he said.

An hour later, U.S. soldiers walked into the restroom of a community building 50 yards from the police station in this oil refining village and found a cache of heavy weapons, including a dozen, .50-caliber machines guns. Even the children knew about the arsenal.

This is typical of the problems U.S. troops face as they help to restore the towns and villages of Iraq. They must rely on a population to help them root out any remaining enemy. They are told there are no fighters, yet each night machine gun fire echoes across the fields, slowing the U.S. transition from waging war to securing peace.

"It's a challenge to manage even this small village," said Maj. Michael Tetu, 37, executive officer for the 10th Cavalry, on Thursday. "Just imagine how difficult this will be in a major city such as Baghdad or Kirkuk."

At the heart of the problem is a difference in priorities. Americans want to ensure security while the Iraqis want help in restoring their communities.

Soldiers are limiting traffic and conducting checkpoints. At night, U.S. helicopters linger a few hundred feet above the village searching for enemy fighters and the red glow of tracer rounds flashing into the sky.

"They want to make sure we aren't like the old regime, and they want their lives to return to normal. We want to find the bad guys," said Tetu.

Many of the locals in this Sunni-dominated area west of Baiji said they are glad the Americans are here, because it marks the end of Saddam Hussein's rule. But they hope the troops will help them bring power and running water to their homes and repair their schools so the children can finish the year. But they think the Americans are here just to wage war, not to help.

"Under Saddam there were very rich and the very poor. We are the very poor." Said Mahir Abdullah Al Janabi. He wants to know when the schools will reopen and medicine will arrive for his sick daughter. He also wants to know when he again will be able to afford food for the 19 members of his family. He said the people are afraid of traveling the five or six miles to Baiji to get medicine.

"These are the questions for George Bush," he said. "How long will this take, and how long will you stay?"

A few yards away, U.S. armored vehicles rumble and vibrate as their strong diesel engines spew black smoke into the street. Soldiers check each car that enters the village. The rotor blades from a Kiowa Warrior helicopter beat the air above him.

"Today, my wife was standing by our bed listening to the voice of the helicopter above," said Al Janabi, a former Army General.

"She was like this, just shaking," he said as he widened his eyes clouded by an injury he suffered in the Iran-Iraq war.

"This we don't want. It is scaring the people."

Across town a group of men gather to watch U.S. Army engineers inspect a house apparently hit by an errant U.S. bomb. The owner is concerned the bomb has not detonated. He shows the men his house, carefully weaving his way through piles of tiles and concrete shaken from the walls.

"I was asleep here, against the wall, and my brother was over there," said Mudhir Ismail Hwaidi Al Janabi, a professor of agriculture at the university in Tikrit. "Then at 6 in the morning we woke up and ran from the room. We did not know what had happened. This is my blood," he says pointing to the wall and removing a baseball cap to show a pink ladder of stitches climbing his forehead. He motions to show how he pulled the glass from his skin.

"I need to know why this happened here. Is this an accident, or is it something to do with me?" A U.S. soldier tries to reassure Mudhir that U.S. planes did not intend to strike his house.

The soldier tells him his house will be repaired, but he needs to be patient. It will take several weeks because equipment for that work has not arrived.

They give Mudhir a handwritten note and tell him to take it to the base in one week. By then relief troops will be here to help him find the agency that will repair his home.

Mudhir is skeptical. He follows the soldier around and asks him how they will know to fix his house. "Will you tell them about me?" he asked.

"Yes," assured the soldier.

By now, many men in the village have gathered around. They ask the Americans why the United States has bombed the house. They ask when the soldiers will leave. But they also say they are grateful.

"We want a new government," said Mohammed Jassim, 20, an engineering student in Tikrit.

"The old government made us very poor." Like others, Jassim wants to know when he and his friends will return to school. He asks why the helicopters fly all night over the village scaring the women and children.

He said oil is the priority for Americans, not the plight of poor Iraqis.

Many of the men try to speak. They tell Jassim that they do not need U.S. troops to make them safe. They want the jun-dee, or soldiers, to leave.

"The war stopped our lives," he said.

"We want the normal life again."


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

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