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Marines to face intense hostility in March upon arrival in Iraq

FALLUJAH, Iraq—U.S. Marines are gearing up relieve the Army in the most violently anti-American part of Iraq, in and around Fallujah, where attacks on U.S. soldiers are a daily event.

Most residents here—and plenty of rank-and-file troops—say the Army's efforts to bring peace have failed. The Army never figured out how to catch bad guys without breaking down doors, alienating women, and detaining and occasionally shooting innocent bystanders. It has stomped on cultural taboos and created many more enemies than it started out with.

The Marines, slated to begin arriving in March, have said they intend to show less force and more understanding. They might take off their armor, helmets and sunglasses, and they say they'll stay as far from Iraqi girls as possible.

Yet overcoming the Army's legacy of anger could prove nearly impossible—and trying to reach out could be a fatal mistake.

"Even if they turned our streets to gold, we would not accept them," said Sheik Thamer Ibrahim Farhan, a local leader in Fallujah. "They should go back to America, or the Iraqis will fight them to the last man."

Fallujah is the epicenter of the Sunni Muslim heartland, a large swath of territory that goes west from Baghdad to the Syrian border and north to Tikrit, the area of Saddam Hussein's birthplace. It's dominated by Iraq's Sunni minority, which formed the core of Saddam's support and now finds itself stripped of its political and economic power.

Unlike Baghdad, with its millions of people, traffic jams, large office buildings and women in high heels, Fallujah is a small, conservative place where tribal customs reign. U.S. military incursions, in which a knock is often followed by boots on the door, fly in the face of a long catalog of those customs.

When the U.S. Army set up camp after the war, 19-year-old foreign men suddenly began barging into homes and touching women. In late April, American soldiers opened fire on demonstrators, killing 13 people. Iraqis at the scene denied U.S. claims that the soldiers were fired on first.

Maj. Michael Marti, the deputy intelligence officer for the 82nd Airborne Division, headquartered in nearby Ramadi, said troops—in a nod to local sensitivities—always tried to have a female soldier with them when doing searches, but that it wasn't always possible. Soldiers also pat people down with the backs of their hands, as opposed to the fronts, and separate men from women, putting each in different rooms, he said.

Jassim Bediwi, a lawyer in Fallujah, said it wasn't enough.

"What they do is a humiliation for us," he said. "You cannot occupy a country and make the people slaves."

There's fear and mistrust on both sides. Most Iraqis say bloodshed will continue until U.S. troops—Army or Marine—go home.

American military commanders often point to projects in the area—from landscaping soccer fields to revamping the electrical grid—as proof of their good will. They say locals are getting friendlier and have begun passing on intelligence tips.

But many Iraqis don't buy it.

"Even if you feed and house your slaves, it is still slavery," Adil Mahdi said when asked recently about the many U.S. civil affairs initiatives in Fallujah. Mahdi is the spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite Muslim organization that tried to overthrow Saddam and has no sympathy for the plight of the Sunnis, who oppressed Shiites under Saddam.

High-ranking military officers won't acknowledge that message.

Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., whose 82nd Airborne Division is in charge of the region, said earlier this month that security and public cooperation in his area had improved tremendously.

"I'm here to tell you that we have turned that corner," he said. "I also can tell you that we're on a glide-path toward success."

Within two weeks of Swannack's remarks, three U.S. helicopters were shot down in and around Fallujah.

On Dec. 13, a large crowd demonstrated downtown against the detention of a local woman, who later was released. After the demonstration, attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades at American soldiers. At least three Iraqis were killed in the ensuing melee.

Farhan, the sheik, sat at the local tribal council office this week and dumped a box of bullet casings that he said were from U.S. soldiers shooting at the demonstration after the attack.

"They have destroyed us," he said. "They have destroyed Fallujah."

Staff Sgt. Chris Corcione, of the 82nd Airborne, said bringing peace to Fallujah would be lengthy and costly. His experience suggests the Marines will have a tough time balancing cultural sensitivity with the realities of daily guerrilla warfare.

During Corcione's first day on the ground in September, he and his men got into a firefight.

"That was my welcome here. I was picking up corpses with my guys," Corcione said. "Public attitude hasn't changed, absolutely not. I go out in this city and it's a war zone."

While there've been incremental improvements, he said kids in the city still pelted him with rocks most times he went out.

Corcione was speaking from an Army tent cafeteria—the Johnson Memorial Dining Facility. The cafeteria was named for Staff Sgt. Paul J. Johnson, who was killed when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb and then came under small arms fire in Fallujah last October. He was a friend and mentor to Corcione.

"If I shot every suspicious person out there, all of Fallujah would be dead," Corcione said.

Even the capture last Sunday of Khamis Sirhan Bashir al Muhammed, an alleged major player in the local insurgency, failed to bring much cheer.

"They'll say yeah, we want peace, we want democracy," said 1st Sgt. Ernie Thrush, whose 10th Mountain Division unit is attached to the 82nd Airborne in Fallujah. "And the next thing you know, they're firing mortars at you."

On the afternoon the stocky 41-year-old from Logan, Ohio, was interviewed, mortars crashed into the road a few yards from the building where he sat.

Swannack, the general, pointed to figures suggesting that attacks on American soldiers in al Anbar province, which includes Fallujah, had dropped by almost 60 percent in the previous month.

Some of that decline could be a result of fewer patrols. Some soldiers in Fallujah say patrols have fallen off significantly. They also have learned not to sit in one place for too long to avoid inviting a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 fire.

"When we're in a spot for more than 30 minutes, that's when they hit you," said Pfc. Kevin Smith, a 21-year-old from Blacksburg, Va.

Smith's humvee was rocked by a roadside bomb in September and a piece of shrapnel went through his left knee. He spent three weeks in a military hospital and is now back in Fallujah.

His company's executive officer, Capt. Matthew McKee, said attacks such as the one that earned Smith a Purple Heart explained why it was hard to reach out to the locals. McKee focused much of his study at the Virginia Military Institute on Mexican revolutionary fighters, and he's an avid fan of books about the Spartan military machine in ancient Greece.

But McKee said he hadn't had much time to reflect on the insurgency in Iraq.

"The boys get shot at every time they leave" the base, he said. "It makes it hard to shake hands."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.