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Marines hope program will win hearts, minds of Fallujah residents

FALLUJAH, Iraq—At a checkpoint outside this disputed city, the flow of people was constant Sunday as hundreds of residents who had fled ferocious street battles two weeks ago clamored to return.

Fighting may resume—U.S. officials in Baghdad said Sunday they had set a Tuesday deadline for rebel forces to surrender their arms—but for people at this checkpoint, and indeed, at a Marine office here, the talk was less of battle preparations than it was of hopes that a confrontation can be avoided.

"I want to see my house," said Fawzia Rashid, 50, who fled the city and "all the bombing and all the military operations" and came home because they seemed to be over, for now.

Marines at the office, set up between the Marines' base at Camp Fallujah and the city itself, were issuing new identification cards to Iraqi police and civil defense officers—600 have been given out so far—in a bid to get the Iraqi security agencies functioning again.

Nearby, about 100 sets of shovels, wheelbarrows and axes were piled in a dusty courtyard—part of a Marine effort to, slowly, spread some cash around Fallujah and put the idle back to work. The idea is to hire Fallujans, paying them perhaps $2 a day, to clean up the rubble around the city of 250,000 left by the street battles.

Later, if it's safe, Navy engineers called Seabees will sweep in with front-end loaders to clear out major damage, such as bombed buildings and walls.

Bigger American plans include a new bridge over the Euphrates River, two large secondary schools, two new clinics, an addition to the Fallujah General Hospital and a bypass to the so-called Cloverleaf Highway that links Baghdad to Ramadi and other parts of the province.

Commanders at 1st Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters describe their campaign to re-establish control over the city in a more nuanced way than using superior air and ground power to storm inside.

There is a military component, of course. They talk of killing foreign fighters who they see as having no stake in a future Fallujah. And they want to disarm Iraqis who have opposed them in hope those Iraqis can have a constructive role in a new, democratic Iraq.

They also want to round up and imprison what they suspect is a third element wreaking havoc in the city—uncounted common criminals freed from Iraqi jails ahead of last year's invasion.

But the real hope, the Marines say, is to establish a mood of cooperation between them and Iraqis.

Tuesday they will take the first step toward that when Marines begin walking side-by-side foot patrols with Iraqi police officers in part of the city, said Capt. Ed Sullivan, a civil affairs officer at the liaison office.

Most Iraqi police officers simply vanished after the March 31 killing of four American private security guards whose bodies were dragged through the streets and mutilated. At best, they were on the sidelines during the fierce battles between Arab gunmen and Marines that followed.

Now, U.S. and Iraqi security forces are vetting Iraqi police and civil defense officers so that the street patrols can begin, a bid to put an Iraqi face on peace.

"You can't swing hammers in the middle of the hail of bullets," said Marine Lt. Col. Colin McNease, in charge of Civil Affairs projects.

Whether that tactic will work, however, is yet to be seen.

At the checkpoint, Iraqi Civil Defense Capt. Salam Ibrahim Abead, 40, said he was happy to work alongside a Pennsylvania National Guard unit checking returning residents. Sunday, the forces systematically patted down the men and searched their cars and trucks for weapons before allowing them to head back to Fallujah.

But Abead was uncomfortable at the idea of U.S.-Iraqi patrols.

"If they see us with the Marines walking around, the resistance will be waiting for us when we go home. Or they will ambush us and shoot on us when we're with the Marines," he said.

Instead, he wanted the Marines to arm the Iraqi forces—many have yet to be given weapons or flak jackets_ to let them hunt down the resistance on their own.

Meantime, U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Bergen, 34, of Morgantown, Pa., a tank commander by training now pulling Military Police duty at the checkpoint, sounded doubtful about how to isolate armed insurgents from the city's residents.

Sunday, he noted, had been a nice, peaceful day—"no rockets, no mortars"—just women and children and a few adult men heading home.

But he also noted that he has yet to sort out who the enemy is exactly, and that even if many are foreign fighters, they clearly had support from others in Fallujah.

"There's got to be a bunch of people helping them inside," he said.


(Carol Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FALLUJAH


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