|A US soldier carries away a curious boy who strayed near an US Abrams tank that was attacked by insurgents on the Baghdad-Falluja highway(AFP) .
Falluja, April 10: Just a hundred yards beyond the factory walls that surround the Marine base camp, the streets feel as remote and forbidding as the moon — a hostile moon where every piece of scrap metal could hide a bomb, every abandoned factory window could conceal a sniper.
It is high noon, and a handful of US Marines are setting out on a foot patrol as the call to prayer begins emanating from mosques across the city. Some of the Marines on this particular patrol are from a civil affairs unit. They have read books about Iraq and taken courses on Islamic culture. Under normal circumstances, they would be chatting with residents through an interpreter, asking about their problems, trying to make friends.
Instead, today they are stalking enemy territory with M-16s at the ready, thrusting their rifles into windows and doors, crouching behind sand piles and rusted factory equipment, communicating with hand signals, turning sharply at an unseen dog’s bark.
And every time they spot another human being, they must instantly decide whether to treat the person as a potential threat or an innocent bystander. That means judging whether a glance is hostile or merely frightened, whether a bundle is more likely to contain food or ammunition.
“Be advised: A group of 20 people carrying white flags are moving behind two trucks,” comes a radio message from another patrol a few blocks away. “Eyes on, keep alert,” responds another voice.
As they creep through the half-deserted, debris-filled industrial zone that the Marines theoretically have controlled since surrounding the city of 300,000 on Monday, the riflemen are moving across tricky terrain in more than one sense.
Until last week, they were instructed to avoid attacking sensitive Muslim sites. Now, after several days of fierce firefights with insurgents hiding in mosques, they are under orders to treat each one as a possible guerrilla redoubt.
“Expect snipers on all minarets. They will do it to draw fire and cause collateral damage in the hour of prayer,” instructs Major Lawrence Kaifesh, a civil affairs officer who spent his first few months in Iraq sipping tea with Muslim clerics and tribal sheiks.
But the troops are also under strict orders not to shoot unless shot at first and unless they can take precise aim at their targets. The tension between these imperatives — to hunt down and attack anti-American insurgents without hurting or alienating the civilian populace — is palpable in every encounter.
“The situation out there is totally different than anything we prepared for,” says Kaifesh, with grim understatement. One of his men guffaws. “We call this aggressive civil affairs,” he jokes.
In a shed beneath a giant cement plant, the patrol comes upon seven bedraggled men and a small boy. The men plead, hold out indecipherable ID cards and mime that they are tired and afraid of loud booms.
| An Iraqi child killed in Falluja. (Reuters)
A young Marine puts on a tough face. “Do you have gun'” A tall man in a red kerchief shakes his head. “Do they have gun'” The man is confused.
“Yes. No. No,” he struggles.
After the Marine lowers his rifle and walks away, the men explain to a journalist in Farsi that they are Kurdish factory workers from northern Iraq who have been stuck in Falluja since Sunday. A few hundred yards away, the patrol enters a yard strung with laundry.
A woman in a billowing blue robe keeps asking whether the troops speak Arabic. But none do, and their regular interpreters are busy back at the Marine base, interrogating detainees.
Next, the troops come upon a concrete-block house with a few stunted palms in front. Women and children file obediently outside, followed by an old man. The Marines check the house briefly for anything unusual, such as excessive stockpiles of equipment or clothing. Then they say thank you and move on.
“God, I hope I’m reading people right,” says Chief Warrant Officer David Bednarcik. “You look at faces, see how people react when you ask to search them. Even without words you can walk into a room and sense if people like you or not.”
Before heading out on the patrol, Bednarcik instructed his men to watch out for people carrying large white bags, because several civilians had been caught this week lugging sacks full of weapons and ammunition. But he also cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
“They might be bad guys, or they might just be going to work. We don’t want some trigger-happy Joe Marine to shoot an innocent person and turn another Iraqi family against us,” he says.
As the patrol picks its way through piles of factory debris, it passes beneath a smokestack that was hit by a rocket the day before.
Around a corner, two male figures suddenly come into view, bent over something by a wall. The patrol has covered several square blocks in just over an hour, and the Marines are almost back at their base, but they cannot drop their guard yet.
“I think these guys may just be laying bricks,” Kaifesh says into his radio, squinting at the busy pair of men. “Remember, they shoot RPGs at us,” comes the sotto voce retort from Bednarcik, referring to rocket-propelled grenades, “and they know the terrain better than we do.”