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For US troops in Iraq, safety vs. diplomacy

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2003


Under the searing heat of Iraq's summer sun, water is like gold. So this weekend, when the mercury hit 110 degrees F., the US Army's 3rd Division rolled into town with 3,000 gallons of the liquid balm, hoping to bring relief to this village 15 miles west of Baghdad.

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But there were few takers.

Wariness of this apparent good deed was written on the faces of the villagers as they stared from a distance. After all, tension with their occupiers has been high since 16 men from the nearby town of Fallujah were killed by US troops during protests in April, and house-to-house searches in May were heavy-handed.

Finally, a group of children broke the stalemate, crowding around the soldiers as they worked the pump. A donkey cart carrying a bright blue 55-gallon drum and two small boys appeared, prompting a soldier to cheer: "Ah, the first customer!"

Amid the surge of lethal attacks against US troops in recent days, the work of the soldiers here in Al Haswa shows the tightrope troops walk as they balance security with trying to win the hearts and minds of regular Iraqis.

When the 3rd Infantry took over here June 3, men in the market shook daggers at them when they passed. Nine soldiers had been killed in the previous week; none have died since. Children still throw rocks at passing patrols, attacks still occur, and on Friday night, a man spat out in angry English, "Leave!"

But the troops are trying to change perceptions. In addition to the daily water delivery, units operating around Fallujah are helping with repairs to schools and electrical facilities. They are also training and equipping Iraqi police, who received 200 new uniforms a week ago. The first group is to graduate from the US-run "academy" Tuesday.

Now a Bedouin family invites soldiers into their tent for hospitable cups of tea. During a night patrol, a boy races on his bicycle beside the lead Humvee shouting, "I love you, mister. I love you!"

Still, that reception is far from the rule around Iraq, where a senior military official spoke on Saturday of the current burst of lethal anti-US attacks. "The first clear message is: 'This war is not over. It's not ended,' " he said. "All of us in uniform are targets, we're subject to being engaged."

Paul Bremer, the US administrator of Iraq, told the BBC on Sunday that "unfortunately we will continue to take casualties." Some Iraqis, he said, "particularly remnants of the old regime ... [are] still fighting us. We will capture and, if necessary, kill them until we have imposed law and order on this country."

Troops are grappling with everything from abductions - the bodies of two soldiers who disappeared last Wednesday north of Baghdad were found on Saturday - to point-blank shootings, like the one that killed a soldier buying DVDs in a Baghdad shop on Friday.

While the Pentagon says the attacks are not militarily significant, for more than 150,000 troops on the ground, stress levels are high, and the line between self-defense and overreaction is just razor thin.

"Technically, we've done what we came out here to do - provide a safe and secure environment and win hearts and minds," says press officer, Staff Sgt. Antony Joseph about the Fallujah area, which has taken on a relative air of calm.

Commanders met local leaders to ask how to ease tensions that had seethed in the aftermath of the killing by 82nd Airborne troops of 16 Iraqis in late April, and tough house-to-house searches in the weeks afterward.

While it may be calmer here, on the night patrol there is palpable tension. US troops say Iraqi attackers signal each other with flares. A red one signals a "soft" target is approaching; green means a hard target like a tank is on its way. Red and green together means the target is within 50 or 100 yards.