Wary Iraqis share countryside with suspicious U.S. Marines

Met with warmth, gunfire, American troops cautious in dealing with residents

War In Iraq

March 31, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DIWANIYAH, Iraq - The farmer wore a nervous grin as a long line of amphibious assault vehicles, Humvees and trucks rumbled onto his property early yesterday morning. The American officer was polite but suspicious. Each wondered: Who was friend and who was foe?

"We have no problem with you being here," Salman Hasham offered, speaking through a translator to a Marine intelligence officer, "but we have women and children here. They are scared to death."

The officer peppered Hasham and his neighbors with questions about their families before apologizing for the intrusion and offering them a promise: "We'll try to let you get on with your lives."

Whether that will be possible for Iraqi residents as U.S. forces push farther north to Baghdad is not clear. So far, the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment have had a rocky relationship with Iraqi civilians, defined just as much by warmth and friendship as it has been by mistrust and miscommunication.

Soon after crossing the border from Kuwait, the Marines were greeted by Iraqi men, women and children blowing them kisses, smiling and giving them the thumbs-up. But this warm welcome did not last long.

On the drive north, Iraqi paramilitary groups dressed in civilian clothing and driving private vehicles mounted with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades threatened their convoy. An ambush by a mix of military and paramilitary groups left one Marine dead.

Saturday, four Army soldiers were killed when a bomber driving a taxi blew himself up at a checkpoint north of Najaf.

When the Marines arrived here yesterday, children ran indoors. A donkey brayed, chickens and ducks scattered. The Americans had come to establish a defensive line on Salman Hasham's property, near this city on a branch of the Euphrates River about 100 miles from Baghdad.

Swinging pickaxes, Marines dug trenches and fighting holes outside his front door. Others armed with M-16s asked to search his house. Across the road, a Marine relieved himself in some shrubs.

Getting to know you

Under the circumstances, Hasham remained remarkably composed. Looking uneasy but smiling, he walked calmly with his wife and daughter to greet his new neighbors.

Now 200 miles into Iraq, the Marines are finding it difficult to establish whether someone who looks unthreatening will prove to be so. The confusion led to civilian deaths last week when Marines opened fire on a vehicle that passed through a roadblock near Diwaniyah. One civilian was killed. A second was injured and taken by helicopter to a military hospital, where he is recovering.

Privately, many Marines say the confusion reminds them of the difficulties U.S. troops had identifying the enemy during the Vietnam War.

No less troublesome is the deep cultural chasm separating American troops and Iraqis. A few Marines, who speak proudly of their efforts to "liberate" the Iraqi people, express contempt of nearly all Iraqis they meet.

During their push north from Kuwait, the Marines grew suspicious of the many homes topped with small black flags they spotted along the highway. Marines suspected that the flags were part of a crude communication system between paramilitary groups plotting attacks on U.S. troops. Some Marines argued that they should start targeting those homes.

It took several days before Marines learned that their fears were misplaced. The flags signaled a post-Ramadan religious observance in the Islamic calendar. Green flags, cultural advisers told them, would be flying from many homes next month.

Last week, Marines grew alarmed again - this time at plumes of smoke coming from the homes of villagers near Diwaniyah, believing that they were being used as signals.

Yesterday, as a Marine interrogation team visited one of Hasham's neighbors, they discovered the likely reason.

"We were making a fire to cook bread," said the farmer, surprised by the question.

The Marines are now questioning farmers who said they wanted to fetch water from a canal near the Marine defenses. Perhaps the farmers are spying for the enemy.

"We think they're lying," said one Marine who had been on a patrol.

This fear and perhaps paranoia are understandable, considering the life-and-death situations the Marines have encountered. But they represent a divide that Marines say must be bridged as troops move closer to the more densely populated areas near Baghdad.

"It's a completely different culture no one is used to," explained Capt. Ethan Bishop, commander of India Company.

Bishop said civilians couldn't be trusted because it is difficult to know their loyalties. Because they are afraid of both the Iraqi military and U.S. troops, they might tell each side what it wants to hear.

"I don't think they think of us as liberators," Bishop said. "They are just trying to survive."

Whatever their differences, Americans and Iraqis were forced to work together yesterday in Hasham's neighborhood, a collection of shabby mud-brick homes surrounded by green wheat fields outside Diwaniyah.

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